A reflection based on Lectionary readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, and 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10.
Today is Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of preparation leading to Easter. Growing up in the Mennonite church I didn’t hear a lot about Ash Wednesday or Lent. Most of my limited understanding came from a close friend who was an Anglican and who often talked about what she would give up for Lent. So my very basic understanding was that Lent was a time to give up something for a while. You could always go back to it later, but for those few weeks before Easter, you had to sacrifice something you liked or wanted.
As a child I really had no interest in learning more and was just thankful Lent was an “Anglican thing” and not practiced by Mennonites. It wasn’t until high school or university that I started learning about the spiritual discipline of fasting and how that related to Lent which I came to understand as a time of preparation for the confusion of Maundy Thursday, the sorrow of Good Friday, the silence of the Saturday, and the joy of Easter Sunday. During this time we are called to recognize our weaknesses, repent and draw closer to God. Part of this preparation process can include giving up what keeps us from that close relationship with God or it can be a time of embracing a spiritual discipline that helps us better focus on nurturing that relationship.
Two of the lectionary readings for this year’s Ash Wednesday speak very clearly about the spiritual discipline of fasting. Isaiah 58 tells us it isn’t just about giving up food, or “bowing one’s head like a reed.” Fasting is meant to bring us closer to God, and not eating may remind us of our weakness and our dependence on God, But in this passage Isaiah also calls us to take action. We are to “loose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke to set the oppressed free.” Lenten disciplines such as fasting and prayer can be about changing ourselves, but they can also be about changing the world.
During Lent and this time of preparation as we seek a changed relationship and ultimately a changed world, what is the place for advocacy? Most advocacy tool kits will include practical advice on how to write a letter to someone in government, or prepare a petition, or how to organize a meeting to inform people about a particular issue, or lead a demonstration to get public attention. Rarely, however, do they suggest taking time to pray or fast. What if before major political or public engagement campaigns we took the time to prepare ourselves with prayer and fasting? Would it make our campaigns more “successful”? Perhaps not, but we might be reminded of why we undertake these endeavours. And we might be changed in the process.
Fasting as a tool for advocacy is not a new idea. Over the years people have fasted for an end to hunger, to raise awareness about climate change, for an end to various conflicts, or to show solidarity with those who suffer. While times of fasting and prayer can bring us closer together and help us focus on what we are seeking to change, Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 that when we pray or fast we are not to draw attention to our actions. This time of preparation is not meant to be a public display, but an opportunity for strengthening our understanding and our relationship with God and each other.
Through the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, God changed the relationship with us and as a result we are called to be agents of change for the world. 2 Corinthians 6:4-5 warns us it will be difficult when it says, “…as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger.” Change does not come easily or quickly. Lent is not necessarily meant to be an easy time and it leads to the dark day of Good Friday. But we know Easter Sunday is coming. In Isaiah’s words, “and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.” (Isaiah 58:10-11a)
As we enter Lent and this time of preparation, may we give up the temptation to stop working for change in ourselves and the world, and prepare our hearts and our minds to advocate for a better world for all.
By Monica Scheifele, MCC Ottawa Office Program Assistant.