Saturday, December 15, 2012

Psalms for the Fast

While reading Lauren Winner's delightful little book Mudhouse Sabbath, I came across this gem:
...I rang up my rabbi [after failing a required fast]. I asked him how important these minor fasts were. I asked him if I would ever get any better at them. I asked him what the point was...Rabbi M. did not roll back thousands of years of rabbinic instruction and tell me eat a bowl of Chex on the morning of Yom Kippur. Instead, he said the hunger was part of the point. "When you are fasting," he said, "and you feel hungry, you are to remember that you are really hungry for God."
Our true hunger is for God.

This led me to think about the purpose of fasting, at least one aspect of it. We are creatures created with a wonderful plethora of emotions, of desires, of loves. However, due to the corrupting influence of death and sin, our loves, desires, and emotions (among other things) are disordered and misdirected, which leads to all sort of addictions, neuroses, and (what the Tradition calls) passions. Fasting, purposeful denial of food and drink for a set period of time, is intended to make us watchful and aware of these disordered things, so that we might pray and start to redirect (or, to use Paul's wonderful and participatory language, to "mortify") these things back towards their proper place: God. It is not a denial of our creatureliness, but rather a "setting right" of that which has gone crooked. It is a symbolic putting to death, hence mortification, of that which has been corrupted by Adam, so that it might rise anew in the resurrection of Christ. It is an affirmation of our creatureliness, both as it was before the Fall and how it will be after the Resurrection.

Fasting, as a liturgical practice, also helps to make sense of some of the Psalms. I remember when I first encountered Psalm 73 in worship. David says there:
Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
I couldn't fathom what that meant, especially as my fiancee (now wife) stood next to me. It was hard to sing, since liturgical singing is a form of vowing or "covenanting" (as my denomination calls it): I desired her (in many ways, not just as a young man desires a young woman), so how could I sing that "there is none upon earth that I desire besides You"?

Part of that issue has now been clarified by fasting (I've been married now for almost a decade, so I've lived with this question for quite some time): any desire/appetite we have, no matter how strong, is a desire to be unified with God. However, this shouldn't be understood as a pseudo-mystical anti-creational thing. Rather, my desire for my wife is not to be one of possession, of lust, of selfishness, but rather my desire is to be one of thankfulness to God; this allows the desire to be one that unifies both my wife and I with God in the mystery/sacrament of marriage (Eph. 5). Note that the height of Christian worship, the Eucharist, literally means "thankfulness" that is participation (koinonia) with Christ and with one another. Our gratitude is the way that our true desire partakes of both God's creation and of God Himself in a proper way. By denying ourselves some part of the created world, we can rediscover that. It is easy to slip into either an incipient materialism that says the creation is good in itself or an incipient spiritualism that says no part of creation should be involved in our worship (I find both options in Reformed worship, swinging like a pendulum; it should be noted that these are the two poles of ancient Gnosticism). Rather, we enjoy God through our use of the creation (as Augustine might put it). Fasting clarifies this and redirects it.

The Psalms, then, reveal the spirituality of a faster. David (and others) constantly speak of these redirections. I'm endeavoring to memorize these so that I might remember, in the throes of a fast, where my desire truly is; and how, if we seek that which we truly desire, "all these things shall be added to you." If we have God, we have everything. If we gain the whole world, but have not Christ, we lose all, including our life.

Psalm 73: "Whom have I in heaven but You? There is none on earth I desire beside You. My flesh and heart may fail; God is the strength of my heart and my portion forevermore"

Psalm 42: "As the deer pants for the water brooks, So pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?"

Psalm 34: "Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him!"

There are, of course, more. I will post more as I come across them. Once again, it seems that an understanding of the life of the Church as the proper interpretive context of the Scriptures (in this case, regular fasting) reveals many important aspects of those Scriptures.

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