Thursday, February 28, 2013

Day 14: On Fasting

Isaiah 55 is one of my very favorite passages in the entire Bible. So, when I saw that it was one of the lectionary texts for Sunday, I knew I wanted to write this week’s reflection on it, even though I’ve engaged this text several times previously. I wrote my first exegetical paper of my seminary career on this text, and I preached on it a couple years ago, too, when the lectionary paired it with the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. This passage is so rich with imagery that it’s refreshing to return to it again and again.

Here are verses 1 and 2 only. The whole passage is beautiful but today I found enough to ponder in the opening lines:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.
 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
   and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food. “

It makes sense to read this passage during Lent. This opening stanza invites those who are hungry and thirsty to come and eat and drink without money. In a season of fasting, to hear this call to come and dine at a banquet table is a beautiful reminder of the abundance God intends for each of us. Yet what does it mean to read this passage when one truly does not have enough food, or enough money to buy basic necessities, or access to clean drinking water? When I read the opening verses of Isaiah 55, I can enjoy the imagery and delight in the promises offered there, mostly because the language is lovely and because it offers an idyllic, pastoral image of the kingdom of God. But I do have food, and money, and water and wine. I want for nothing. What might it mean for those for whom these seemingly rhetorical questions echo in the reality of the present? Is it beautiful or does it serve as a stark reminder that one is hungry?  

These thoughts have led me to the question, is fasting itself not a privilege? The idea of denying oneself, especially from an overindulgence (chocolate/sweets, fast food, soda, etc), implies that there is opportunity to abuse something which one has access to in abundance. What of those whose fasts are not voluntary? What might they make of this practice of giving up these nonessential luxury goods as a means of spiritual practice? There’s something deeply ironic about that. I know the popular practice of Lenten fasting has devolved a bit from the truest intent of the practice of fasting, so perhaps the irony is most at home within our American-Christian manipulation of a meaningful spiritual discipline, but I still think that any form of voluntary fasting might be considered a privilege or serve as a reminder of the blessings one normally has at ones disposal to enjoy.

I think these opening verses of Isaiah 55 shouldn’t just be read with a spiritual understanding of feasting. I believe God’s promises here are very corporal. As such, I think we can find in this passage a call to action. How can people on this earth, those who have no money and no food, experience the blessings this passage promises? It’s not enough to look forward to the “richest of fare” at a heavenly banquet when you are hungry right now. There are enough resources in the world to ensure that all people have just as equal and ample access to material blessings and they do to spiritual ones.

As many of us fast during Lent from things we experience in abundance, may we remember the great privilege it is to practice the self-denying exercise, for it means that there are things from which we must actively work to abstain. For those whose fasts are involuntary, we pray, that the promises of Isaiah 55 would be realized in the kingdom of this world. 

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