Tuesday, February 23, 2016

#TractSwarm: The Language of Fasting

On the first Sunday in Lent, I recited the Exhortation from the Book of Common Prayer to emphasize for the parish the penitential character of the season we had just entered. I had never been in a congregation that used the Exhortation, and so this was a new experience for me, as I imagine it was for many of our parishioners. The severe, chastening language of Rite I, including the Exhortation, was a brusque change from our usual affirming and hope-filled outlook. To say in the confession that "we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness" might at times seem over the top and disingenuous for people who believe in the inherent goodness of humanity and see the glass as at least half full.

Yet, it has been useful to step out of our customary ways of praying and theologizing to confront the reality of human brokenness and sin. In a sense, we have been fasting from the normal language that nourishes our prayer and worship, and we miss it. It is a deprivation we feel in our very bones. If the function of fasting is to purify ourselves by dismantling the idols that keep us from a healthy relationship with God, then relinquishing our dependence on our linguistic comfort zone is a step in the right direction. If our customary language obscures the truth about human sin, which we'd rather not face, then it is meet, right, and our bounden duty to take a break from it and use language that forces us to see a different side of ourselves, even if it is our underbelly.

In the midst of all of the harsh "I am a worm and no man" language, however, there is a gentleness that can easily be obscured if one is not attuned to the Lenten theme of God's mercy.  The Exhortation, for instance, emphasizes that humanity is not beyond help or hope. God loves us extravagantly, and for this we are thankful:

Having in mind, therefore, his great love for us, and in obedience to his command, his Church renders to Almighty God our heavenly Father never-ending thanks for the creation of the world, for his continual providence over us, for his love for all mankind, and for the redemption of the world by our Savior Christ, who took upon himself our flesh, and humbled himself even to death on the cross, that he might make us the children of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, and exalt us to everlasting life.

Instead of just abandoning us to our endless wickedness, God's people are given useful strategies for overcoming their shortcomings. The Exhortation tells us to adopt a renewed reverence for the Eucharist, to forgive each other, to scrutinize our consciences, and if we are overwhelmed by guilt and sinfulness, to "open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith." In this way, the disciplines of Lent, such as fasting, confession, and Station of the Cross, prepare us lovingly to receive the joy of the Paschal feast. Fasting may take on many forms: abstaining from food or drink, resisting the temptation to judge or speak harshly of others, or adopting a more disciplined, healthier lifestyle that will honor the body as God's temple. However we fast, the sacrifice should dismantle the idols--even our language--that enslave us and distract us from our relationship with God.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

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