16 March 2006

A Fast Without Laws

I live next door to one of the highest concentrations of peoples from the Middle EastPalestinians, Chalcedonians, Iraqis, and various Arabic peoples. Over the past few decades, for whatever reason, they have gathered and formed their own ethnic ghetto on the eastern side of Dearborn. What Chicago is to Poland, East Dearborn is to the Middle East.

Such a gathering of peoples not only brings delicious cuisine, but also the need to explain unfamiliar customs and religious traditions. The Detroit newspapers do this faithfully, especially when the Muslim holy days approach. (Curiously, we rarely hear of the religious traditions of the numerous Christian Arabs that also inhabit this area.)

Like clockwork, there appear appropriately timed stories about the month of Ramadan--the holiest of times for Muslims. The articles, essays, columns and news accounts invariably describe and depict the observant tradition of prayer and fasting during this time. (To be fair, the same media will also announce the beginning of Lent among Christians and publish human interest stories about "giving up something for Lent.")

What intrigues me, though, is not simply the fascination but more so the admiration of the Muslim fast. In our corner of the world, no small number follow the strict fast of abstaining from all food and drink (except water) during daylight hours. A breakfast may be served before dawn, and a sizeable dinner usually comes after sundown. But in addition to this rigorous regimen, what captivates the conversation of the media and my parishioners is the devotion, the adherence to the traditions of their faith, and the communal participation. More than once I've heard, "Pastor, those people must really believe!"

What captivates me is the fact that the Ramadan fast is more than a religious exercise. It has woven itself into the fabric of ethnic identity and the rhythm of life. If this were not so, only the devout would partake. But during the day, parents and children, employees and employers, the devout and the nominal—nearly anyone who identifies with Islamrefrains from eating.

There used to be a corresponding Christian fasta fast that was as much a given as Christmass decorations, Valentine cards, and Easter bunnies. This Lenten fast was practiced by all without compulsion because it was part of the annual rhythm. Without any civil laws, it affected not only the cuisine, but also the economyas Ramadan does in my backyard.

But now the Lenten fast has been trivialized down to, at best, a way to rekindle New Year's resolutions. Penitence has given way to self-improvement. Reflection on Our Lord's suffering has been turned into a gentle self-administered form of behavior modification.

Hardly any notion is given to the religious significance of the fast. (If this were not so, the fast of choice would not be cutting down on desserts or candies.) And, except among the devout, no connection is made between this fast and Christian charity or increased prayer and devotion. Yet even with those devout, it is considered oppressive or tyrannical to encourage certain fasting days or a certain fasting diet.

One may chalk up the disdain for the Lenten fast to living in a country and an era where the last acceptable form of bigotry is anti-Catholicism. However, I think it goes much deeperinto the very fabric of our being. I propose that the disdain for fasting mirrors a much deeper and more profound disdain for repentance. Not repentance as the world givesa well timed "I'm sorry (you're sorry)" that both gains sympathy and becomes a powerful political weapon. That worldly repentance we hardly disdain and, in fact, admire. But the Christian repentance that consists of true contrition or sorrow coupled with confidence in a mercy in the face of deserved discipline—that's what we disdain. A repentance that affirms and embraces both true fear and true love of God; that humbles itself before God and all men, relying on nothing but the hope that Kyrie eleison will be answered affirmatively.

I will not say that the Moslem fast demonstrates an awareness of Christian repentance. But I am confident that the common non-avoidance of the traditional Lenten fast bespeaks not the spirit of the Ninevites—which is one exhibit of Christian repentance. For after the Ninevites heard the fearful and heart-rending preaching of Jonah, in the midst of their honest contrition, while they confessed not simply with their mouths but holistically in sackcloth with fasting, the people of Nineveh pinned their hopes on the "perhaps" of God's mercy (see Jonah 3.9).

Could a people who consistently vote for God, and who boast of their faith and their keeping the faith, and who identify themselves (at least culturally) as Christians—could they ever entertain such true repentance?

First published at "On Being Liturgical" (1999). Revised 2006.

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