“Excuse me,” I said to the lady who’d just sat down beside me on the bus,”You’ve got this bit of…oh…” I’d mistaken a cross marked with dark ash on her forehead for unwelcome dirt.
So it was Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent. For one brief moment, I thought of pleading Lent as an excuse to abstain from all the Chinese New Year “goodies” that inevitably beleaguers visitors as they make their rounds, festive house-visiting. To decline any of the pineapple tarts, kueh bangkit, kueh lapis, bak kwa, love letters, peanut cookies, sugee cookies, etc would be to blow a raspberry at the proffered hospitality. But having always nurtured a great dislike of the overly sweet, overly buttery stuff, accompanied by sickly pop soda in garish colours, if I could just claim a fast…
Sadly, that would have been a very bad excuse indeed:
(i) it would be an outright lie;
(ii) but if I did make good my fast not just to escape the tyranny of festive baked goods, my motive for so doing would have been wrong ab initio; and
(iii) even if I did mean to fast for a properly good reason, there’s the danger of hypocrisy:
“Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you…” (Matthew 6:1, 16-18)
Well, come to think of it, what rationale is there for fasting for Lent? It’s not prescribed in the Bible. And we can be quite sure about what it is not:
- for Christians, it is certainly not to earn merit. For Buddhists, for example, vassa is a period of intensive meditation, marked by asceticism – in practice, by the giving up of meat-eating, alcohol-drinking, and smoking. From what I understand (and I might be wrong, since I was only Buddhist for a few years), this stems from the Buddhist world-view that one must accumulate merit in life to ensure rebirth higher up on the spiritual liberation plane. For the Christian, however, there is the understanding that sin is not acknowledging God, who created the world and sustains it, as God, and therefore not heeding his word. The punishment for sin is death, but the blood of Jesus on the cross paid for all the sin of humankind who ever existed in human history. We accept this offer of life by believing that Jesus really did pay for our sins, and living with him as our Lord (as God the Father appointed him to be) and God. Nothing we can do can earn us our salvation, and self-inflicted pain does not in any way gain us spiritual reward;
- it is not quite an act of repentance per se. There are many instances in the Old Testament where fasting is a sign of sorrow over sin, contrition, repentance. That is to say, sackcloth and ashes (eg. Nehemiah 9:1) were merely an outward symbol of the inward turning back to God – the mere act of fasting meant nothing in itself. If sin means not to acknowledge God as God, then repentance is turning back and doing the opposite – acknowledging God as God, and living according to his word in the Bible. Said God through Isaiah to the people of his time:“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgement of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements;
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed[b] go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58, see also Zechariah 7)
- it might be hipster spirituality, not true spirituality. Carl Trueman (good name!) in Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing Our Piety wonders how much of the popularity of Lenten observance “speaks of a certain carnality: The desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it. As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness. In fact, far from revealing deep seriousness…it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion of the movement…it also puzzles me that time and energy is spent each year on extolling the virtues of Lent when comparatively little is spent on extolling the virtues of the Lord’s Day. Presbyterianism has its liturgical calendar, its way of marking time: Six days of earthly pursuits and one day of rest and gathered worship. Of course, that is rather boring. Boring, that is, unless you understand the rich theology which underlies the Lord’s Day and gathered worship, and realize that every week one meets together with fellow believers to taste a little bit of heaven on earth.”
- fasting is commonly termed a “spiritual discipline” but what is a spiritual discipline? Spirituality itself is a mere theological construct whose basis, as D.A. Carson says in When is Spirituality Spiritual?, is scripturally debatable. And this theory generally devolves into techniques of self-discipline, sometimes called “spiritual disciplines” in order to get on more intimate relations with God.But, continues Carson in Spiritual Disciplines, techniques are never neutral. They are invariably loaded with theological presuppositions, often unrecognized. How closely would fasting (and self-flagellation, hairy shirts etc.) be tied to “medieval notions of elitist perfectionism not open to ordinary Christians? A relationship with God is not based on ecstatic experiences akin to going on a green detox diet or decluttering one’s possessions, but on meditating and chewing on how he has revealed himself in history, as recorded in the Bible, and so understanding him enough to be thinking his thoughts after him.
“In one sense…all those who by God’s grace exercise saving faith in Christ Jesus have the Spirit (Romans 8:9) and are “spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:1-15). But then we are to “live by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), and that means self-consciously putting to death the “acts of sinful nature” and producing the “fruit of the Spirit”…And so we could go on, adding dimensions to any construct of spirituality controlled by the Word of God, correcting ourselves and our experience by Scripture, so that we may enjoy the fullness of the heritage that is ours in Christ Jesus while remaining entirely unwilling to be seduced by every passing fad.”