Saturday, February 9, 2008

These 40 Days

I was quoted in an article by Sherri Richards in today's issue of the Fargo Forum.

Amanda Vaalburg was studying to be a Protestant missionary when she first tried fasting during Lent.

The practice opened up something in her heart, she says. That year, she felt compelled to attend Easter vigil at a Catholic church.

A few years later, she converted to the Catholic faith, officially joining at an Easter vigil Mass.

“I really wonder if I would ever have become Catholic if I didn’t embrace fasting,” Vaalburg says. “It’s a very deeply positive experience. Sometimes it’s something that can bring us to God in a way that nothing else can.”

So now, every Lent, Vaalburg gives up sweets (“It doesn’t happen perfectly, but I try”) as well as a bad habit, such as being late, worrying unnecessarily or speaking critically of others. She says she tries to fill that void with a positive spiritual experience, such as a retreat or special devotion.

She also fasts outside of Lent, such as on Fridays and during Advent.

“It quiets our spirits inside so we’re more open to receiving the message of love that God has for us on the cross,” Vaalburg says.

Fasting and abstaining are common during Lent, the liturgical season leading up to Easter, especially in the Catholic faith. Catholics are called to go without a main meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and to abstain from meat on Fridays.

They are also encouraged to take on a personal form of penance, like Vaalburg’s break from sweets.

“It’s a way of entering into the same human experience that Jesus had in the desert,” says Monsignor Gregory Schlesselmann, rector at Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo. “Jesus was giving us an example.

“What we should really be hungering for is God, for the fullness of life in him,” Schlesselmann says.

But individual fasts are common during Lent in other Christian traditions as well.

“Almost everyone I know among parishioners say they’re trying to do something during Lent,” says the Rev. Jamie Parsley, assisting priest at Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral. “It’s kind of like life. We have our fast times, we have our feast times. To really enjoy Easter, we refrain during Lent, to really get us in the mind of what’s coming up.”

Generally speaking, fasting is common in several religious traditions. For example, Muslims fast during the holy month of Ramadan and Jews fast on Yom Kippur.

But some Protestant circles are a bit reluctant to encourage fasting, in case people would do so for the wrong reasons, says Suzanne Hequet, a visiting assisting professor of religion at Concordia College in Moorhead.

Hequet points out that Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday celebrations – a last opportunity to “live it up” before Lent begins – are more common and larger in areas that are predominantly Roman Catholic than those that are predominantly Lutheran or Protestant.

In the Augsburg Confession of 1530, Philipp Melanchthon, an associate of Martin Luther, wrote that church practices like fasting are approved, unless they are done to gain favor and mercy from God, Hequet says. Those actions are useless and contrary to the Gospel.

Most Protestants agree on Luther’s teachings regarding this area of justification, she says.

“If Lutherans for Lent want to fast or take on some sort of special understanding of hunger … those are taken on not to gain salvation but rather to be a visible mark of their status as Christians,” Hequet says. “They’re affirming the reality of Christ in their lives.”

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