Fasting and Feasting

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
     If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
     Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
     I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
    "Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
     "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
     So I did sit and eat.

 

Love (III) by the 16th Century English poet and priest George Herbert, has long been a favourite poem of mine. I first encountered Herbert’s work during my undergraduate days, and have been an enthusiast ever since. Love (III) is not specifically a Lenten poem, but it does communicate something of the heart of Lent as I understand it.

Lent is not supposed to be a period to begrudgingly forgo a handful of pleasures, but as we prepare ourselves for Easter, it is a time to focus our hearts more completely on God, to come to attention, sit at God’s table and feast on the immense gifts of God’s love and grace.

This is why I find Herbert’s poem so compelling: Love is always bidding us welcome into the presence of God, inviting us to sit and enjoy the exquisite food offered at His table. Yet, knowing that we are guilty of “dust and sin” - unworthy to be there, like the protagonist of Herbert’s poem - we often draw back and resist the invitation. In (false) humility, we reject the offer to be served by the love of God. The poem reminds me of what Jesus said to Peter when he refused to let Jesus wash his feet. Peter said “I am unworthy!” But Jesus replied, “unless I do this, you can have no part of Me.” It is a fearful thing to be served by the Living God.

We feel our guilt, we know what we deserve. The protagonist in Love (III) says: “let my shame go where it doth deserve.” What is Love’s reply? “And know you not”, says Love, “who bore the blame?” But this grace is too much, we want to earn it, “let us serve!”, we cry. We want be worthy of this grace, but we can never be, it is pure gift:

No, says Love, you must sit and dine, and I will serve you.

 

How do we do this? How do we sit ourselves down to eat and drink in the presence of God? Paradoxically, fasting from something can help us. Fasting does two things: it gives us time, and it serves as a constant reminder of what we are supposed to be doing with that time.

To the first point, time. Fasting should involve the removal of an activity that usually occupies a great deal of time. In the ancient world (before supermarkets, packaged food, electric ovens, and microwaves), cooking a meal was a time and labour intensive activity. By taking out even one meal of the day, a substantial amount of time was conserved that could be redirected toward God. Thus, when you fast, it should be from something that similarly involves a significant time investment, whatever that may be for you - cooking a meal, playing Candy Crush, using social media, watching movies on Netflix, hanging out with friends - so long as by giving up one or more of these things, you use the time saved toward prayer and meditation and worship.

Secondly, whatever you fast from, it should be something significant enough that its absence causes a sense of loss, a craving. Why? Because the craving, the hunger, the withdrawal symptoms, the longing for whatever you are foregoing, will thus serve as a constant and in some cases very visceral reminder (coffee headache, anyone?) of why you are observing Lent. The craving will be your constant companion, calling you to find your strength and sustenance in the presence of God. As crazy as it sounds, and this has been a long established practice of the church, attested to by many devoted saints:

fasting is an aid to feasting.

 

Once again, Lent is not about drawing back into ourselves to indulge in a morose experience of guilt-laden introspection, but about creating room for us to feast at God’s table in preparation for Easter. Yes, there is difficulty in letting go of something that is usually a part of our lives, but the benefit is that we create time and space to devote to the One who has given us all things in Christ Jesus, the One in whom we live and move and have our being.

The Orthodox Church calls Lent the season of “Bright Sadness”. I can’t think of a better description. For whatever sadness we may experience at the loss of something from which we are fasting, we willingly embrace for the sake of being filled with the brightness of God’s glory.

Therefore, Lent is something we should approach as “an opportunity, not a requirement. After all, it is meant to be the church’s springtime, a time when, out of the darkness of sin’s winter, a repentant, empowered people emerges. ...Our self-sacrifices serve no purpose unless, by laying aside this or that desire, we are able to focus on our heart’s deepest longing: unity with Christ.” (Bread and Wine, xvi)

In other words, Lent is about love.

 

"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.


Let's make that our goal this Lenten season.

 

Tim horman

Redemption Church

Redemption Church, 3512 7th ave W 7th Ave, Vancouver, BC, V6R 1W3, Canada