And so we have arrived at the 5th week of Lent.
In whatever way we have chosen, we have been praying, fasting and giving alms – all the traditional acts of Lent. They are the ways in which we re-order ourselves to prepare for the intense days of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.
Many years ago as a novice when I was just setting out on religious life, I was filled with enthusiasm for these three things. In the noviceship we didn’t have any money, so almsgiving had to be expressed in other ways. Sharing perhaps, or finding those small acts of generosity and kindness. Given that so much of the noviceship was organised for prayer, finding some extra time wasn’t such a penance. But what about fasting?
Well, I remember how with considerable enthusiasm I detailed for the novice master the things I thought I could give up. There was no doubt that the list was heroic, especially as I was prepared to sacrifice those sweet things at tea-time. I rather liked tea-time and found the biscuits or other pastries an immediate source of consolation at a low point in the dreary routine of a normal noviciate day. I had impressed myself, so I thought the novice master must be impressed too. He wasn’t! It was obvious that he did not think my fasting would do much to change the geopolitical map of the world, or initiate a new era of brotherly (and sisterly) love and reconciliation.
He said, rather quietly, doing his best to mask his irritation – which, for some reason, I always had a gift for causing – why don’t you try fasting from self-will first. Hmm….. giving up the biscuits at teatime would be much easier.
Over the years I have come to see that fasting, whatever form it takes, is not about demonstrating our strength of will, rather, it is about acknowledging our need of help; our need of the grace that so often comes through others. It is about recognising that the good things of this world are also gift. Whether it is food, clothes, small or big luxuries they all, ultimately, come through the labour and art of others. Often, others who can’t afford the very things we are choosing to fast from.
Our fasting is about our spiritual and material freedom; giving up our sense of entitlement to grow in gratitude for what we have and what is given. In some quiet way, we are saying we are not just consumers to be manipulated into buying the latest product which marketing guarantees will change our lives.
When so many now depend on food banks, or parts of the world are facing famine because of war or climate change, our fasting takes on a new urgency. It opens us up to the Christ who meets us in the faces of the families and children for whom fasting is not a Lenten choice but a daily reality. They come to haunt our prayers and ask us to share the very basic things of life with them.
When we fast, we make room for others. For their sake we can live with sufficiency rather than surplus; with caring generosity rather than anxious insecurity, generated by the adverts that convince us that there is always something we lack that someone else has.
No marketing ploy can bring into existence a world of secure sufficiency and the just distribution of creation’s goods. It needs a new heart, new imagination which only Christ can bring. This is the real fasting of Lent, to clear out the clutter, and to make a place for him and all those who come with him, the hungry, the poor, the outcast, beggars and the undesirables.
This making space in our hearts and minds for the other, is really part of the fast, the acts of self-denial that love asks of us. St Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 13: “ If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal……”
It is such a beautiful and familiar encomium on love, but sometimes we can forget that it is a radical daily exercise in fasting from ourselves: “love is patient and kind; does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
So, to grow in love, I must try to fast from the things which destroy love; the words and deeds that wound others and break the bonds between us; my impatience, unkindness, envy, and my pride. The fast of loving requires me to let go of those resentments and angers which diminish the dignity and value of others. It asks me to reject all that is false and fake and love the truth. If I can manage even a small fast to let love happen, then how much could change?
Imagine if the leaders of this world could put aside the ‘noisy gong and clanging symbols’ of their political rhetoric. If they could develop the politics of fasting for peace, fasting from power, avarice, egoism, fasting from violence and intimidation, from all that obstructs the practice of love, then our cultures and our nations would, at last, discover new hope, a new faith, and a new way of living.
There is one place where these dimensions of fasting and love come together. It is in the eucharist. In this great prayer action, each day Christ shows us the life-giving power of self-giving and sacrifice for the lasting good of others. In the simple acts of receiving, blessing and offering, Christ shows us how to use the gifts of creation so that they not only feed the body but also the soul as well. He offers us the bread of life, not just our natural life but God’s own life – Love itself. It is the feast in which the whole Church is gathered, and time and space are no barrier to our communion. The Eucharist is the feast of an intimate Love that never fails or passes away. Here we can bring all the pain, the destruction, the suffering and desolations that mark our lives and histories and place them before Christ who makes them his own.
Whenever you are feeling hungry, weary, in pain or close to despair, amid all the violence and the wars, you can come here, to this sacrament, to refresh a wounded heart and troubled mind, to rest a weary soul. The eucharist is already our Easter.
The beauty and the truth of the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood is contained in one of the most exquisite and profound antiphons for Corpus Christi, O sacrum convivium (O sacred banquet).
The text is attributed to St Thomas Aquinas, and it has been set by many composers throughout the centuries. There is a magnificent, deeply prayerful setting of it by the 16th-century Spanish composer, Francisco Guerrero. As we listen, the music gathers us in; it creates a sense of space that becomes filled with presence. As it progresses, we ascend until we ourselves come to be filled with this presence: our fasting is ended, and we are filled with Christ: Love’s fast can only end in Love’s feast – of which we are the ministers to a world starving for want of Love.
O sacrum convivium!
in quo Christus sumitur:
recolitur memoria passionis eius:
mens impletur gratia:
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.
O sacred banquet!
in which Christ is received,
the memory of his Passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory to us is given.