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.