Opportunities to start over are God’s consistent promise in an imperfect world where change is the only visible constancy, writes Brian Volck. But is change something we can really prepare for?
“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”
When is it too late to begin again? Did you miss the opportunity to make a New Year’s resolution, or did the declaration you made prove short-lived? If the pounds you meant to shed still linger, you’ve already spent the money you swore to steward wisely, or the words you promised to stop saying once more fall freely from your lips, is it too late to try again?
January has come and gone. Lent arrives late this year. But Candlemas (also known as the Feast of the Presentation), the nearly forgotten festival that once marked the end of Christmastide, is Feb. 2. Perhaps this is the opportunity you’ve been looking for. Then again, maybe not. Think hard before deciding -- when has procrastination ever worked for you?
Perhaps a little preparation is in order. Change, after all, is difficult. Does it really make sense to leave such matters to whim or chance? But is change something we can really prepare for? For the spiritual descendants of Abraham, opportunities to start over are God’s consistent promise in an imperfect world where change is the only visible constancy. We don’t so much choose to change as we give our consent to receive it as a gift.
Such an attitude doesn’t come readily in economies where getting and spending are the engines of prosperity. As Karin Bergquist of the band Over the Rhine sings, “There’s nothing harder than learning how to receive.” Perhaps some education is in order after all.
In the Bible, fasting is common preparation for new beginnings. Moses fasts on the mountain before receiving the law. Ezra proclaims a fast before the remnant returns to Jerusalem. And Jesus fasts in the desert before starting his public mission. The practice is almost always associated with prayer, each reciprocally intensifying the other.
Fasting is typically understood as temporarily and intentionally limiting food intake -- all foods or certain kinds -- and directing that effort toward greater awareness of God’s presence and grace. But a fast can certainly pertain to other activities, such as drinking, speech or electronic entertainment. The primary goal is not thinness (or sobriety or whatever) but a proper relationship with God.
For some Christians, though, the effort smacks of works righteousness. Others recall Peter’s dream (Acts 10) and the decision in Jerusalem to exempt Gentile converts from Jewish dietary laws (Acts 15). Jesus himself says a person is defiled by what comes out of the mouth, not what goes in (Matthew 15:11). All of these citations, however, neglect the biblical association between the proper practice of fasting and prayer. For the righteous, the two are tightly linked; it’s not too glib to say the practices feed one another.
There’s an equally important reciprocity between feasting and fasting, a balance lost when one dominates the other. It’s not simply that the absence of food makes the heart and stomach grow fonder, nor should fasting underwrite cycles of obsessive bingeing and purging. When approached with thoughtful attention, abstaining from some or all foods for a time helps recover the mystery of food as gift. (The same, of course, works for things other than food.)
In an economy where food is stacked on grocery store shelves for purchase, we obscure our dependence on others and our place in creation. Brushed clean of the dirt it grew in, chemically enhanced to visual perfection, and wrapped in cellophane and brightly colored packaging to attract the buyer’s eye, the produce we purchase carefully hides, as if ashamed, the sweat of the brow by which it was cultivated and the laboring hands through which it passed.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French gastronomist, knew of what he wrote in his aphorism “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” Several centuries earlier, Aquinas described six forms of gluttony -- only one of which involves eating too much -- and he might well have concluded, “Tell me how you eat, and I will intuit the state of your soul.”
Many of us who say grace before eating offer little further evidence of gratitude for our food. In freeing ourselves from want, we have weakened the mysterious sense of creaturely dependence upon God.
Food -- the matter that matters so much in our lives -- is a mystery, and no one approaches true mystery without paying a price. Mystery calls pretense into question, especially the fashionable modern delusions of autonomy and self-mastery.
By recovering a practice of receiving food as a mysterious gift rather than taking it as a given, we may rediscover that our bodies are dependent parts of a creation that God looked on and called “very good.” With this in mind, we might once again feast with proper gratitude and joy. For materially comfortable Christians, that would be a welcome new start indeed.
Whatever beginning we embrace, the promise of the new comes from a God outside of time, though we can only apprehend God’s promise in time. There’s really nothing special about New Year’s (Christians might do better observing Lent well), but it’s as good a time as any. Following the crowd, albeit for the right reasons, at least challenges the illusion that it’s really a matter of autonomous choice.
God’s promise of true newness, rather than mere novelty, is constantly bestowed upon his creatures, though it may not arrive in the form you expect or desire. The God of second chances cares little about your record of failure or the month in which you embrace the mystery of being his creature. It’s never the wrong time to learn how to receive.