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Are you hungry? Really?

Kate Barrett | Thursday, February 18, 2010

It’s mid-morning on Ash Wednesday as I write this, and I’ll be honest, I’m getting a little hungry. Not seriously hungry — after all, it ordinarily wouldn’t even occur to me to eat at this time of the morning (but of course, because I can’t today, I’m thinking about it) — but that kind of niggling “sorta-hungry” feeling that reminds you to look forward to lunch.
Today’s lunch, however, isn’t much to look forward to, nor is today’s dinner. And so we have begun the season of Lent. Now as far as fasting goes, our experience of Lent is a cakewalk (oh, sorry) compared to the way our Catholic ancestors celebrated it. For centuries and until as recently as 1966, just after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, Catholics fasted on all the days of Lent the way we only do now on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday: Only one main meal, and two other smaller ones “sufficient to maintain strength.”
Somehow, even though the Church has relaxed the “rules” around fasting during Lent, fasting remains the sacrifice of choice from our three traditional Lenten disciplines: Prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Most people who take the season of Lent seriously seem to give up something that they’d hunger for, whether a food, a bad habit or a luxurious indulgence. I’d like to propose that unless our fasting relies heavily on the other two disciplines of prayer and almsgiving, we may have simply given ourselves an extra New Year’s resolution or a reason to be overly proud of ourselves.
Prayer and almsgiving help us focus on keeping our motivations a bit cleaner during Lent. If we’re hungry, are we trying to allow God to come in and fill that empty spot, or are we just hoping that said “empty spot” will shrink, along with our stomach, in time for Spring Break? Can we take our hunger to the Lord and ask God to guide us to the clarity of vision we need to determine what our deepest priorities should be? Additionally, if we consciously give the money we don’t spend through fasting to others whose need is far greater than ours, then our hunger helps us stand in some small measure of solidarity with those for whom fasting is never a choice but simply a daily reality. Otherwise, let’s be honest, we’re just trying to lose weight or quit smoking or watch less TV and we’ve disguised our self-improvement program as a Lenten sacrifice.
“Mommmm! I’m staaaaaahrrrrrving!”
My kids have learned to be careful before uttering that common complaint of childhood — they will likely receive from me a lecture on what it really means to be starving, on how they don’t know starving, on how they’ve never even been truly hungry, on how they can talk to me about hungry when they haven’t eaten for days … and on and on until their eyes glaze over and I step off my soapbox. In my defense, however, it’s true, both for kids and adults. What we call a fast is, whether we like it or not, a feast for most of the planet. Even if we just ate bread and water and considered it an astonishing act of sacrifice on our part, you know what? At least the bread would be fresh. At least the water would be clean and free from waste and other disease-carrying organisms.
So beware the Pharisee at the front of the temple. Remember him? His “prayer” meant to ensure that God knew each one of his many virtues: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people … I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Whatever we choose to fast from this Lent, we might want to approach it with the attitude of the tax collector who prayed in the temple as well, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:11-13)! And if you’re hungry, and if I’m hungry, good. We’re definitely not starving, and we’re probably not even really, truly hungry. God eagerly awaits our invitation to come in to the newly empty spaces that we’ve at last opened up to his company. If we allow our desire for God to satisfy our hunger, and if we reach out to those who fast only because they have no other options, Lent offers us the chance to fill our hearts and our lives with the loving presence of our Savior, who will fulfill our deepest wishes and meet us where our true hunger lies.

This week’s Faithpoint column was
written by Kate Barrett, director of the Emmaus Program in Campus Ministry. She can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.