I really wanted pizza for dinner. I wasn’t just thinking about it as a possibility; I could actually smell it and taste it. I went with a friend to pick up a few pizzas for class and seriously considered getting a small one for myself to take home for dinner. It would make a lot of sense, I told myself. I have a meeting tonight and don’t have a lot of time to make something beforehand. The problem is, I’d already thought of that and planned ahead of time to have the leftover lentil soup I’d made. The soup was good, if I do say so myself. Really good. But I wanted pizza.
Those of us observing Lent are probably having a lot of these moments. We’re confronting how often we just decide we want something, and convince ourselves there’s no reason we shouldn’t just get it. It’s only a couple bucks. It’s not like we’re rashly going out and making some huge purchase on a whim. We’ve paid our bills and been responsible, so why not?
But remember why we do this. The idea behind giving something up for Lent, fasting from something, is that this small sacrifice should help us think about the larger story of the suffering of Jesus. Not just the physical suffering, but also the mental and emotional suffering of isolation and aloneness he experienced as a result of his faithfulness. What can we give up that means something?
Traditionally people give up some type of food for Lent. That’s not by accident. Food is the most basic of necessities, intimately connected to one’s life and ability to thrive. By going without food, we think of what else nourishes and sustains us.
One of the 4th century Desert Fathers, Abba John the Dwarf, said: “If a king wants to take possession of a city he begins by cutting off water and food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, submit to him. So it is with sinful passions. If a person goes about fasting and hungry, the enemies of his soul grow weak and surrender.”
We can fast from other things too. What about a shopping fast? Is it possible that not buying something, not getting what we want, can be more satisfying and fulfilling than getting everything we want? It’s not just about going without and denying ourselves any earthly pleasure, but actually filling ourselves with things that are really life-giving. Fasting in and of itself isn’t a magical recipe or formula for holiness, but should point us beyond ourselves, to God’s justice and righteousness at work in the world, as Isaiah 58 reminds us.
That night I wanted pizza I reheated my soup in the microwave, and my soul was satisfied. It felt good, and I felt like I’d actually won a spiritual battle of sorts. Of course, when I got in my car to go to my meeting, the pizza smell was still lingering, and I had to start all over again. It was a good reminder of the journey we’re on. There’s no permanent solution, in and of ourselves, to all of our cravings, desires and sins. One victory does not negate our humanity – Ash Wednesday reminds us of that. It also reminds us that in Jesus there is healing, grace and forgiveness, and that new life can be born from ashes.
Audrey Hindes teaches biblical and religious studies classes at Fresno Pacific University. She is a graduate of FPU with a master’s degree from Graduate Theological Union.