“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 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 them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” —Isaiah 58:6-7 (NRSV)
I was raised in a church of the Reformed tradition that did not observe Lent. In my tradition, in the appropriate calendar month we commemorated Good Friday, remembering the events of Jesus’ suffering and death, and Easter, when we joyfully sang “Up from the grave he arose…” But as an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament, I embraced the themes and practices of Lent, emphasizing anew just how far God would go to reach out to God’s beloved, yet sinful, creation through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
There is, however, one Lenten practice I find difficult to embrace, and that is fasting. Among some Christians, fasting primarily involves giving up something that is dear to them, like chocolate or social media. These practices are essentially merely personal. Should not Lent be something more, something deeper, something that truly costs us something?
This is why the words of Isaiah 58 seem much closer to the spiritual practice of Lent. “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…” In the previous verses there is a contrast between true and false worship. The people in exile ask God, “‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’” God answers: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high…”
Fasting in Isaiah is not to be merely giving up something, unless it is hate, bigotry, oppression, and division. It is instead to be mobilized to loving action toward the neighbor. It is to move our focus from ourselves and toward those in need. In Luke 10 Jesus says something similar. There, an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus, and Jesus emphasizes the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But the law expert wanted to justify himself, so he asks, “And who is my neighbor?” After telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks, “‘Which…was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”
I deeply appreciate these words from Pope Francis regarding fasting: “Fast from hurting words and say kind words. Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude. Fast from anger and be filled with patience. Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope. Fast from worries and have trust in God. Fast from complaints; contemplate simplicity. Fast from pressures and be prayerful. Fast from bitterness; fill your hearts with joy. Fast from selfishness and be compassionate. Fast from grudges and be reconciled. Fast from words; be silent and listen.”
Of course, the words from Isaiah 58 and Luke 10 are not simply words for a Lenten practice. Rather, they well describe the mission and work of the people of God in every age. They are also integral to the self-understanding of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, found in its simple focus statement: “Called to communion, committed to justice.” In our regional expression of the WCRC, the member churches of the Caribbean and North American Area Council are situated in spaces where there is much communion to be celebrated, but also much justice work to be done. Economic, ecological, gender, and racial injustices abound in our midst. To be sure, there is an important emphasis toward solidarity and communal theological understanding in our work together. But, like a Lenten practice of fasting, being in communion must lead us out into the work of justice.
These words from Walter Brueggemann say it well: “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.” And may the God of life lead us forward in the tasks of justice as Lent is followed by the Easter shout of joy: “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
—Lisa Vander Wal
WCRC Vice President
Reformed Church in America