Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Last Temptation

One of the more interesting moments at last year’s Synod for our Anglican Diocese of Melbourne came when a motion concerning Lenten observance was proposed by members including delegates from a prominent evangelical parish. In part it requested that Synod:

[ask] parishes and other agencies to encourage their parishioners and members to abstain from the consumption of alcohol during the Lenten season, as together we acknowledge and deeply reflect on the harm being inflicted on individuals and our society through alcohol abuse.

Many of you will have heard of this initiative, and I am sure some are participating in it, directly or indirectly, as part of your Lenten discipline. Although it is commendable, it raises some questions about the forms and the motives for Lenten discipline.

Jesus’ own extraordinary fast, which is held up to us in the Gospel as the model for our Lenten discipline, is a preparation for his ministry which was for us all, but not in itself something for anyone else but him. He doesn't go around Nazareth signing up sponsors. And the immediate results of his fast are ambiguous at best. His temptations actually follow his fast, brought on by his heroic discipline, not avoided through it.

In T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, Archbishop Thomas à Becket faces temptations like those of Jesus. Pleasure and power in various forms are predictably offered. The last however is the temptation to do precisely what he must – accept a martyr’s death - but to do so seeking glory and power, even past death. “The last temptation”, Eliot's Thomas reflects, “is the greatest treason; to do the right thing for the wrong reason”.

Despite the lack of acknowledged values deeper than material prosperity in our public discourse (and the tragi-comic seasonal sensitivities that have Easter Eggs and Hot Cross Buns in the stores before Lent has even begun) Australians do have our secular equivalents to Christian spiritual discipline. Recently many participated in FebFast, a secular program whose name makes an obvious reference to the idea of “fasting”, and in which participants give up alcohol for the shortest month of the year “for your waistline, your wallet and your liver!” as the website puts it, but also clearly with a view to raising funds for programs supporting those with alcohol and drug dependency problems.

Intriguingly, the motion to encourage Melbourne Anglicans to give up alcohol for Lent looks as though it was inspired at least in part by FebFast; and now the Anglican initiative is even listed under the FebFast website, under the odd and redundant title of “LentFast”(!). So ironically the secular recognition of the value of seasonal restraint seems to have been what inspired some Anglicans to consider the value of this discipline.

A sense of our responsibility to others is part of spiritual discipline; fasting and other practices of self-denial do need a broader context than just interiority. Fasting also does have many potential meanings, some of them unhelpful, and we need to think hard about what we use it for; but we cannot limit it to any single issue. "LentFast" could just as easily have focussed on (say) the symbolic connection between giving up certain foods and the reality of world hunger, or many other equivalents. "LentFast" risks turning an ancient and abiding tradition into another here-today-gone-tomorrow program wherein the Church desperately chases after secular cultural relevance. Yet it deserves to be taken seriously and thankfully; and who knows, perhaps we may hope it will eventually lead to the observance of...Lent?

Fasting will not in itself bring us closer to God, but may bring other forces and choices closer too. Fasting creates a space, a physical and spiritual pause from consumption, in which body and mind can be redirected, reshaped. How we reshape them, and for what purpose, is another question.

What Lent always raises, as it raises for Jesus, is the issue: who we are, what we are here for, and what choices we will make going forward with our own lives. We can train ourselves for secular virtue, or physical fitness; we can seek to shape ourselves inwardly or outwardly for self-focussed or narcissistic ends; or we can seek to open ourselves to the way God’s spirit might reshape us to accompany Jesus on the way of the cross.

2 comments:

  1. It could be suggested that the push to give up alcohol for Lent also has longstanding cultural origins in Melbourne. Not many years ago an Anglican parish in Burke Road that has a regular weekday meal in a restaurant on the eastern side of that significant arterial thoroughfare, was caught up in the dispute to get a liquor licence. Restaurants on the western or city side of Burke Road can sell alcohol, but not on the eastern side. Many people regard Burke Road as the great borderline between the wets and the dries, and here was the test case. Some parishioners thought it time to support the change and push the envelope. Incredibly, locals interviewed in the papers said that it was okay for the west, but the east side of Burke Road was still not ready for alcohol. Temperatures rose. Caught in the middle, the Vicar shrewdly, or wisely, quoted Scripture in the pew notes, to the effect that wine is good, but in excess can lead to unfortunate spectacles. The politics of this polite part of Melbourne are such that the restaurant was unsuccessful, with victory for the status quo. Thus you may stand at Camberwell Junction today and look toward the hills and an alcohol-free existence or look west toward the winedark sea and the innocent results of all this genteel tipsiness.

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  2. Anonymous2:32 am

    An adjunct but related question is to do with the complexities of observing Lent in the southern hemisphere given its coincidence with harvest-time. At our place recently a dozen family members gathered for a day to chop, pulp and press 80kg of apples to produce cider which will be used for cooking and drinking over winter. It was an enjoyable event, dubbed ‘Pome Day’ (also ‘Pom Day’ given the country of birth of many of those present.) But its proximity to the beginning of Lent threw up some tensions: harvesting is incredibly time-consuming, where Lenten observance suggests allocating extra time for prayer and reflection; harvesting is often an extroverted, all-hands-on-deck activity, contrasting with the Lenten call to introspection (in the best sense of the word); harvesting is active and vigorous work, incompatible with stringent fasting whereas a classic Lenten sedentary activity such as a retreat is not only compatible with fasting but its purposes will likely be enhanced by it; finally, harvest is characterised by abundance and fecundity which evoke thanksgiving and invite feasting, while Lent is characterised by frugality and restraint, evoking repentance and oriented to fasting or other forms of self-limitation.
    There doesn’t seem to have been much written about this topic, and there seems little discussion around seasonality in general. Perhaps Lent is not as widely observed as it was (although this week I did notice a supermarket had a prominent ‘Specially for Lent’ banner over its fish section). In a largely urban society a few grow food for the many, and consumers seem largely unwilling to tolerate seasonal variations (though thanks to the Slow Movement, Permaculture and so on, there are signs that this is starting to change). There still seems to remain, however, a lack of theological reflection around a season which is both penitential and bountiful. This is an area I hope to do some work on in the future, so any thoughts or recommended resources would be appreciated.
    Deborah Guess

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