Emphasis on food in many of this month’s readings underscores its centrality for human life both physical and spiritual. From Joel’s locust plague that devastated crops to Isaiah’s “acceptable fast” honoring the poor, the Ash Wednesday readings draw connections between devotion and diet. Readers are reminded throughout the month that in God’s bounty there is more than enough for all to share.
But since sharing comes hard, we might take instruction from Luke’s story of Jesus’ wilderness temptations, read on Lent’s first Sunday, in which Jesus disciplines himself by fasting. Even after forty days of voluntary hardship, he is not as susceptible as the devil apparently hopes. Rather, his self-discipline is sturdier than ever as he declares, “One does not live by bread alone.” Jesus knew the value of fasting not only from pleasures but even, sometimes, from necessities.
Though forty days was extreme, food discipline surrounded his upbringing: Jewish tradition had prescribed full fasts each year for Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — as well as perpetual fasts from foods considered unclean, such as pork and shellfish. Religious Jews still keep these fasts. Observant Muslims similarly abstain from pork and alcohol perpetually, and during the month of Ramadan fast from sunrise to sunset. Such discipline encourages other kinds of self-control in human relations and spiritual practice.
Christian tradition emphasizes fasting less than Judaism and Islam do. Some contemporary Catholics choose to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and to abstain from meat on Lenten Fridays. Protestants have inherited even fewer protocols. Some practice self-chosen abstentions during Lent, individual fasts for particular purposes.
As Christians committed to environmental justice, we may find several reasons and ways to fast:
· Abstaining from beef, the most environmentally damaging food, which contributes to climate change in multiple ways: from resource-intensive feeding methods to overuse of water to production of methane.
· Or even abstaining from meat altogether either periodically or perpetually, particularly since factory farming not only pollutes land and water but ignores animal suffering. Instead, we may cultivate a taste for other proteins such as grains and legumes, cooked inexpensively with satisfying variety.
· Abstaining from, or cutting back on, excessively packaged foods that require disproportionate energy and resources to prepare, transport, and discard, and instead cooking and consuming foods that minimize waste. Similarly, abstaining from or minimizing foods that travel long distances or are grown with polluting pesticides and fertilizers.
· Abstaining from foods that are unjustly produced, and instead choosing fair-trade whenever possible.
The food choices we make several times each day provide unparalleled potential to act on our social and environmental commitments. In May 2012, the progressive evangelical magazine Sojourners featured new ways churches are discussing food, from scriptural meditations to glimpses into farmworkers’ lives. Mississippi pastor Michael O. Minor noticed that many parishioners were overweight, and chose fearlessly to begin preaching about it. This congregation loved fried chicken, the centerpiece of every potluck dinner, but members came to appreciate “the Baptist preacher who banned fried chicken” and his frank concern for their health.
The magazine’s editor pointed out the nationwide problems that underlie unhealthy foods. These include everything from personal health to government agricultural policy, as well as the $8.5 billion per year corporations spend to advertise food, candy, and beverages in the U.S. Many are calling America’s food system “broken”: unjust, unhealthy, and unsustainable. Religious leaders bear the responsibility to highlight the ethical and spiritual dimensions of diet. What better time to begin than Lent?
February 7, Transfiguration Sunday, commends bold, transformative leadership:
· Exodus 34:29-35 describes Moses’ leaving Sinai with the commandments, his face shining.
· Psalm 99 announces God as ruler of all, lover of justice, establishing equity, answering prayers.
· 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 comments that “since we have such a great hope, we act with boldness … we do not lose heart.”
· Luke 9:28-36 narrates Jesus’ powerful transfiguration, which the disciples failed to understand.
Ash Wednesday (February 10) offers all the tools for reflecting on food choices:
· Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 highlights the locust plague that infests the land, ruining crops, reminding us that food is a gift.
· Isaiah 58:1-12 claims that acceptable worship means alleviating hunger, homelessness, and want, not acquiring selfish advantages.
· Psalm 51:1-17 recognizes dependence on God for living within limits.
· 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 distinguishes between wealth and security, on the one hand, and lives that are well lived, on the other.
· Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 insists that material treasures perish, and commends spiritual treasure instead.
February 14, Lent’s first Sunday, emphasizes our utter dependence on God:
· Deuteronomy 26:1-11 prescribes bringing the first fruits before the priest while recounting a story characterized by gratitude, reminding hearers of the natural miracle of food.
· Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 commends security in God alone.
· Romans 10:8b-13 recalls God’s love for all without distinction.
· Luke 4:1-13 shows Jesus’ practice of fasting and ability to withstand temptations.
February 21, Lent’s second Sunday, offers various other ecological opportunities:
· In Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, God invites Abram to consider future generations.
· Psalm 27 offers the ecologically poignant line “I believe I will see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living.”
· Philippians 3:17-4:1, with its distinction between minds set on earthly treasures and heavenly realities, invites reconsideration of what belonging to God means — renunciation not of God’s creation, but of materialism, which defies God.
· In Luke 13:31-35, Jesus compares his compassion to a mother hen’s care.
On February 28, Lent’s third Sunday once again emphasizes food:
· Isaiah 55:1-9 reminds us of a world where food and drink are not commodified, where all are freely invited to “come to the waters.” It commends wise choices, so that we may “eat what is good.”
· Psalm 63:1-8 uses the imagery of drought to describe longing for the rich feast of God’s presence.
· 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 shares the theme of food, remembering the story of manna in the wilderness and the water God gave from the rock.
· Luke 13:1-9 teaches that those who suffer are not necessarily those who sinned. God waits for us all to bear good fruit.