I think it’s true to say that the fasting we do during Lent, the next one only a few days away, is really more like dieting than it is the death-defying penance taken on by those stalwart souls in times past and even today. Cutting down on food and drink at any time is certainly commendable for people like us overfed Americans.
Denying ourselves various pleasures as penance for our sins is a good thing; however, originally, fasting, in our Christian tradition and in other religions as well, had a much deeper purpose, and that was, by cutting off all nutrition, to enter into direct dependence on the power of God to sustain life. It was a way of experiencing more immediately the vital connection between God and oneself. (This explains, by the way, the apparent absurdity of the Gospel line that informs us that Jesus was hungry after his 40-day fast in the desert. We tend to think or say, Well, who wouldn’t be famished after more than a month without food? But if we think of him as the mystic that he was, who enjoyed an uncommonly profound intimacy with God, we can accept the possibility that he was so intensely absorbed in communion with the Creative Spirit that his bodily needs were in a way suspended and adequately satisfied by the direct, unmediated union with God.)
Such encounters with God are still experienced by some few persons of different religions, but they have to be undertaken only as prompted and sustained by the Holy Spirit, who alone can lead one into such a desert place. Wise spiritual direction is absolutely essential in such cases.
Yet, we all need to become more aware of our essential dependence on God. It’s one thing to know that intellectually: to be aware that we have not created ourselves. But it is something entirely different to feel that relationship and to allow it to influence the actions and major decisions of our life. That is what Jesus is talking about in today’s familiar gospel account. He says that we must be so convinced of this lifeline between God and ourselves that we will not worry, beyond reasonable concern, about our jobs, our food, our clothing, our tomorrows. Our life, he says, is to be marked by careful attention to our responsibilities and duties on the one hand, and on the other hand a child’s carefree assumption that its parents will provide all that is necessary — and much, much more.
Our first priority, Jesus teaches us, must be the advancement of God’s kingdom here on earth; that is to say, contributing toward building a condition of love and peace and justice and mercy for all. That is where our energies must be primarily placed, and then all else will follow as needed. The Father loves and cares and gives without fail, ever!
As a neat contrast, and to add to our image of God, today’s brief passage from Isaiah describes God’s love as womanly, maternal, exceeding that of even the tenderest mother. It reassures us that our confidence is well placed and will never be shamed by denial. God does not merely tolerate us, he implies: we do not have to be clever and aggressive to get an open hearing and a favorable judgment. God has loved us into existence and God’s love continues to be our life!
Lent is soon upon us. It can be a time of foolish, wasted effort if our intent is to buy God’s favor with the coin of our prayers and penances. But it can be instead a time in which we become more alive, more free and creative, by saying yes to this God who enfolds us in unconditional, everlasting love!