“I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes”.
It is intriguing that at a time when many, including Christians, are uncertain, suspicious or just ignorant about traditions of self-denial or asceticism, others - including, or even especially in the secular world - are embracing them with resolve.
One instance is FebFast - a charitable organization based on persuading individuals to give up alcohol for the month of February. Participants raise sponsorship money from friends and family, which goes to support research and services related to drugs and alcohol and their impact on young people.
Although FebFast’s main purpose is to raise money for charity, its publicity gives considerable emphasis to the benefits for health and wellbeing of participants. “Past participants have told us they have lost weight, saved money, found more time, energy and productivity in their day and slept better!”
FebFast’s promotional material doesn’t imply any seasonal connection with Lent – it merely emphasizes that February is the shortest month of the year – implying that this makes the challenge more achievable than ‘JanFast’ or ‘MarchFast’ would have been!
Yet even without the suggestive inclusion of the word ‘Fast’ in the title, I imagine those familiar with the Christian penitential season will notice a connection.
The lack of theological significance in FebFast is of course significant in itself. There may even seem to be a measure of superficiality in the appropriation of ascetic language as well as practice in such an exercise, however benign it is. But that may actually help us understand the practices of self-denial or discipline traditional at this time of year.
Asceticism literally means training. Traditional ascetic practices reflect the deep wisdom that the training of our bodies can also be the training of ourselves; recent study on the plasticity of the brain merely reveals the neurophysiology of what one of the desert fathers or a woman mystic of the middle ages could already have told us. Our bodily choices reflect and make our inner selves too.
Traditionally this has meant communal identity as well as individual. Every culture has its fasts and feasts, every religion its rules for avoidance and withdrawal. Christians have fasted in Lent, Jews at Yom Kippur, Muslims at Ramadan. Ask each group what they are achieving thereby, and they will give very different answers. Yet each expresses and creates its own identity through the shared experience.
We ourselves in the modern West have something of a crisis about the ascetic element in corporate human existence, because we have a crisis about culture itself. We are likely to think that fasting is like folk-dancing or falafel - something that other people do, but which we can partake of ad lib, consuming asceticism in pursuit of personal self-fulfilment, rather than engaging in it corporately as part of a culture of which we are uncertain.
Nonetheless westerners are also ascetics; every human being has his or her own forms of self-restraint and discipline that contribute to a sense of self. Monastics, sadhus and such do so more obviously, but the modern western dieter and the gym-goer are not necessarily so different, even if the self they construct seems to be.
But as these examples imply, discipline can be put to different ends, and the self can be moulded in different directions. Many saints are ascetics – but so are many dictators. Asceticism must be judged not only in terms of its technical success but in terms of its end and goal. What self is being constructed, or what community created. by our self-denial?
Ascetic practice, including fasting, does not always achieve or communicate the same thing for the participants and others, across time and space. Yet ascetic practice is arguably part of the deep structure of human culture itself, independent of specifically religious meaning. Asceticism is not so much a message as a language, which can be appropriated to convey or effect different things.
So, as Lent begins, what does this tradition of self-denial, of discipline, of crafting identity through asceticism involve? What selves shall we make, what messages send?
When Jesus declares his renunciation of the fruit of the vine he adopts an ascetic discipline, of course; he does not do so, however, to “lose weight, save money, find more time, energy and productivity in his day and sleep better”, but in preparation for sleeplessness, captivity, torture, loss of life. He does do so for the sake of others, giving up something good so that others may have something better. He does so to forge his own true self which is revealed in cross and resurrection. And his message is of the reign of God which he establishes, the great feast of the Kingdom.