With foreheads crossed in ashes, millions of Christians around the world will inaugurate the Lenten season today by commemorating Ash Wednesday. The ritual will be significant for some, full of depth and meaning. It will be mundane for others, an annual go-through-the-motions habit meant to keep the good karma coming our way. And many of us will choose to fast for the duration of Lent.
Coffee. Television. Meat. Sex. I once knew a guy who fasted from speaking. Just completely stopped talking. The possibilities are endless.
But this year, as we begin our march toward Easter morning, I’d like for us to reconsider the idea of the Lenten fast. In recent days, in light of the tragedy of the 21 Christians beheaded by IS militants in Libya, I’ve had these jarring words from Isaiah 58 weighing heavy on me:
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter - when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
Most of these men were from a poor village in northern Egypt. Upon hearing the news of their deaths, witnesses say that many of their relatives fainted from shock, only to awake again to the crushing pain that this was indeed reality and not just a horrible nightmare. Egypt has declared seven days of national mourning. In the footage released by the militants, the 21 are accused of being “people of the cross.”
People of the cross.
Is this not what we all are? Are we not the bearers of good news planted in blood stained dirt at the foot of the cross? Were we not all invited to carry our very own crosses and follow? What is Lent if not a steady, daily reminder of oncoming crucifixion? So what will we crucify? What will we put to death?
This year, maybe we can put to death something other than coffee, television, meat, and sex. Maybe we can put to death something that will stay dead long past Easter morning.
Apathy in the midst of injustice.
Ignoring the cries of the oppressed.
Passivity in the face of hunger and pain and loneliness.
Maybe this Lenten season is an opportunity for us all to fast from, and put to death even, our oh-so-American tendency to prioritize comfort and convenience above all other things. Maybe this Lenten season is an opportunity for us all to confront the horrors of our broken world with courage and bravery and action; to do something about the injustice in our cities, our neighborhoods, our schools, our homes; to respond to the cries of the oppressed, to take action, big or small, when our cozy little lives are disrupted by the harsh realities of hunger and pain and loneliness.
Maybe this Lenten season offers us pause, to untangle ourselves from the mess of our luxuries, to find beauty in the cruciform life.
Maybe we can begin by remembering and praying for the families of our 21 Egyptian brothers.
Milad Makeen Zaky, Abanub Ayad Atiya, Magned Solaiman Shehata, Yusuf Shukry Yunan, Kirollos Shokry Fawzy, Bishoy Astafanus Kamel, Somaily Astafanus Kamel, Malak Ibrahim Sinweet, Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros, Girgis Milad Sinweet, Mina Fayez Aziz, Hany Abdelmesih Salib, Bishoy Adel Khalaf, Samuel Alham Wilson, Worker from Awr village, Ezat Bishri Naseef, Loqa Nagaty, Gaber Munir Adly, Esam Badir Samir, Malak Farag Abram, Sameh Salah Faruq