A Living Offering: Fasting, Prayer & Almsgiving in Lent

Written by Anna A. Petrin, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Marywood University

Trees with light coming through. A Voice in the Wilderness

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

This prophetic oracle from Joel appears each and every Ash Wednesday in the Revised Common Lectionary: the diet of readings from Sacred Scripture that orders the Church’s prayer and worship. Even with the yearly appearance of this reading it remains, for me at least, a little disorienting. The prophet begins with a cry of warning issued by God: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain.” That cry of alarm intensifies as the prophet continues to speak God’s message to the people: “the day of the Lord,” is coming and it will be a day of darkness and gloom, “like blackness spread upon the mountains.” What are the people to do about this threat of God’s coming? Return to the Lord by means of fasting, and weeping, and mourning. After all this comes the prophet’s most surprising insight – a promise of hope, albeit shaky: “Who knows?” the prophet asks tentatively. “Who knows, whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?”

That timorous hope, thin as a wisp of smoke, leaps off the page at me year after year. It is remarkable first because of the prophet’s trust in God’s own action. Joel stands before the ineffable will of God and simply waits. Second, it is perhaps more remarkable for its outcome: the prophet doesn’t hope simply for better days, ease, or comfort. Joel doesn’t even mention getting things back to the way they were before the tumultuous “day of the Lord.” Instead his hope is to receive something that can be offered back to Lord, and for a blessing from God that can be offered back to God by God’s people. Joel’s hope is that the fast, weeping, and mourning can be transformed by the day of the Lord, and become itself a sacrifice and offering that restore communion with the God of Israel.

As Christians, we bear witness to the fulfillment of Joel’s hope. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ are simultaneously the “day of the Lord,” God’s gracious presence among us, and the offering by which God’s communion with God’s people, indeed all people, is restored. In Lent we anticipate the darkness and mourning of the “day of the Lord” that comes in the suffering and death of Christ Jesus our Lord. We know simultaneously in Christ the transformation of human life expended as a living sacrifice in communion with God’s own will: it is the joy of Easter’s dawn. We know that the Resurrection transfigures sacrifice: mourning will be turned to dancing, sorrow will become joy, and death will give way to life eternal.

The historic practices of Lent are a means by which Christians have prepared for “the day of the Lord” for much of the Church’s history, and they are threefold: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. First, we enter into Christ’s own act of obedience each Lent by following the prescription of the prophet Joel: by fasting. The act of fasting, not out of disdain for God’s good creation, but from a desire to prepare for an encounter with God in God’s creation is itself a lamentation. It is a statement that despite our creature comforts “all is not well,” until God is all in all. Fasting is not, then, an end in itself but a means to communion both with God and with God’s people. It is therefore always coupled both with prayer and with almsgiving. Removing ourselves from some (or many) creature comforts teaches us to devote ourselves afresh to prayer: to a regular act of communion with God. Fasting here is partially the subtraction of distraction, but it is more importantly the addition of prayer. Prayer, in turn, produces community. Fasting turns our attention from ourselves and toward God. Simultaneously, our attentiveness to God teaches us to be attentive to one another and to replace striving after desire for our own comfort with striving to love as God in Christ has loved: in service to others.

Each of these practices, braided together, prepares us alongside Joel’s listeners to anticipate the day of the Lord that we will celebrate in the feasts of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter. Our fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, is an entry into Christ’s own suffering and into the “day of the Lord” as Christ struggles in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and endures the Crucifixion on Good Friday. In our own practices we are “united,” as Paul says in Romans 6 to the death of Christ. We become with Christ a holy and living sacrifice. And we are transfigured also to welcome the dawn of Easter morning, to receive from God the blessing of our lives reconfigured by the eternal life of Christ and to live in an unshakeable communion with our God.

 May our fasting and worship this Lent unite us to the suffering of Christ, so that we may enter with him also into the joy of the resurrection.

A Voice in the Wilderness: Lent 2024

Find all entries from A Voice in the Wilderness online here: haymarketchurch.org/lent24