Once you start viewing scripture through the lens of Feasting and Fasting, of when people eat and when they abstain, it’s astounding how often it comes up.
I was the lector this past Sunday at my church, and read our Old Testament reading from Jonah…”Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” (Jonah 3: 4-5)
And in researching the story of St. Paul’s Conversion: “Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything…Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. (Acts 9: 8-9 and 17-18)
So, in both these stories, people were confronted with God, surprised from their day-to-day by God, knocked from their current state into something new by God…and responded by fasting. It’s easy to see this in terms of atonement, of making oneself suffer, of feeling unworthy…but I don’t think this is all there is to it. I think when you are surprised by something as Awesome as God, you literally have to stop and make space for it.
I was surprised by the Holy Spirit once. When I was 14, during a Maundy Thursday stations of the cross at my hometown church, my feet were washed by a dear woman – she had been my Sunday School teacher, and is a poet and a tremendously emphatic person. She tenderly caressed and washed my feet and something in me broke open, and I wept and wept and wept and could not be consoled. As I was held by my church family who loved me, I felt like everything in me was being poured out, like I was a husk, an unworthy vessel to something bigger and vaster and more wonderful than I could contain.
I was not wise enough then to pause. To remain empty and see what happened. Instead I ran away from this – it was just too much. I stopped attending church, and instead of being in relationship with God, I kept everything at an arms-length, in my peripheral vision. Over *there*. Not in me.
I am thus astounded by the people of Nineveh, and by Saul. I suppose if the ritual of fasting was known to them, it was a natural place to go. I suppose if your end-time had been called, your sight taken from you, it would be instinctual to hold still and wait, to fast. But still – I know firsthand how easy it would be to just run away.
And I know now, from fasting every Friday, that there is a renewal from it. The next day I eat again. After Saul became Paul, he was baptized, and he ate again, and from both these things was given strength to do God’s work. If I hadn’t ran back then, what renewal would I have received? What rebirth would I have experienced?
I’m a fitness instructor, so I often see things in terms of exercise, of practice. Taking Fridays to fast – it does remind us of Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday. It does transition us from the work week to the weekend. But it also, and I’m starting to think most importantly, prepares us for when we need it. We practice fasting, being still, being empty, so when we are confronted and surprised by God, and when that comes in a taking-away of what we think we know and who we think we are, we are familiar with the sensation. We can remain, and wait for renewal.