Our Lenten Fast in a time of COVID-19
We will gather in worship as a community again. We will be fed at God’s table again.
And we trust that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
Let this time be a Lenten fast from the sacrament,
so that our Easter joy may be even greater
when we are welcomed again to taste and see that the Lord is good.
Our synod Bishop Craig Satterlee offered this reflection as we prepared on March 12 to refrain from “in person” worship at Trinity on March 15. Our fasting from the Lord’s Supper has continued for three Sundays and will likely continue well into the season of Easter. In a real way, this time of physical distancing has become a Lenten discipline in 2020, a Lenten discipline that will continue well beyond the 40 days of this season of repentance and renewal.
Fasting as a practice in the Christian observance of Lent has its origin in Jesus fasting during his 40 days in the wilderness before his public ministry began. When the faith community embraced that 40-day discipline in the season before Easter, the disciplines of Lent were grounded in seeking a just relationship in prayer (justice toward God), in fasting (justice toward self) and in almsgiving (justice toward neighbor). The aspiration of nurturing just, right relationships with God, self and others is at the heart of the 40-day Lenten pilgrimage to the new life proclamation of resurrection on Easter morning.
Like so many other calls to the narrow path of right living, our tendency in the human experience is to transform a challenging call to discipleship into a quaint custom, an easy to accomplish nicety. Alexander Schmemann, in his text Great Lent, writes, “. . . we satisfy ourselves with Lenten symbolism. In church magazines and bulletins appear recipes for ‘delicious Lenten dishes,’ and a parish might even raise some additional money by means of a well-advertised ‘tasty Lenten dinner.’ So much in our churches is explained symbolically as interesting, colorful, and amusing customs and traditions, as something which connects us not so much with God and a new life in God but with the past and the customs of our ancestors, that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern behind this religious folklore the utter seriousness of religion.”
Schmemann goes on to say that although there is nothing wrong with such customs, the few customs that survive become symbols of a life no longer lived. Spiritual renewal and efforts to live rightly with God, self and others, evolve into customs that are the least difficult to embrace. The popular parish fish fry on Fridays becomes the symbol of Lenten fasting. Easter baskets, bunnies and bonnets become the retail symbols of the central Christian proclamation of resurrection. We know that the marketing of religious customs has become central to retail business and advertising. Did you know that McDonald’s addition of the “Filet-o-Fish” sandwich to its menu occurred as a result of a Cincinnati McDonald’s franchise in a heavily Catholic neighborhood struggling to sell hamburgers on Fridays during Lent? For many, the approach of Christmas and Easter are signaled less by seasons of Advent and Lent and their invitation into disciplines of anticipation, repentance and renewal, than by the rollout of retail campaigns to sell the stuff of our Christmas and Easter consumerism. The customs which have survived are symbolic of a life no longer lived.
“Let this time be a Lenten fast from the sacrament, so that our Easter joy may be even greater when we are welcomed again to taste and see that the Lord is good.” Perhaps this time of COVID-19 closure can be a time when we begin to reclaim the “life no longer lived,” the life of prayer, fasting and generous giving as Lenten people. We need not condemn fried fish or Easter chocolates, but our quaint customs should remind us of a deeper way of living. Schmemann suggested that our customs, instead of only symbolizing our “rich heritage,” should compel us to integrate that heritage into our real lives. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving can be the disciplines of our response to a gracious and forgiving God in hope and faithfulness, even in a time of pandemic. Even beyond Lent of 2020 . . .
Perhaps you have found with me more time to pray in this time of upheaval. Perhaps the fast from being together, our distancing from gathering, worshipping, and coming to Holy Communion, is reminding us of how rich those traditions are in defining the central sabbath gathering of the people of faith in worship. Perhaps the generosity of giving will seem less like an obligatory submission of dues than a faithful response to the abundance of what we have received, a joyful response to a providential God.
Our Lenten fast in a time of COVID-19 has the potential to change us from ‘going through the motions’ to a deeper reflection on what is important in our lives, and the life of just relationships with God, self and others implied by the disciplines of Lent. More than fish sandwiches and chocolate bunnies, our journeys of faith call us to a way of living. Perhaps one of the beautiful outcomes from this time of separation and fear will be clarified sense of what matters, and of God present in what matters. I am hopeful.
Thankful for the privilege of being one of Trinity’s pastors, I bid you grace and peace.
Pastor Bob Linstrom