“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land.”

— Isaiah 58:6-11 (NIV)

Heard in the Wilderness

Could you wander for forty years if it meant freedom? If you listen, you can still hear them groaning — they who were rescued, only to find that freedom is never so easily won. That liberation is a path marked by uncertainty and thirst and grief over all that was lost in the revolution. In Exodus, we are faced with a God of slow rescue. When the struggle of the wilderness became apparent, even the Israelites themselves began to pine for the bondage of Pharaoh. How fierce the grip of certainty — to know with clarity what is to come, however terrible and lonesome that fate might be.

Perhaps God knew that part of liberation is confronting anything you might hunger for more than it. Will you cry out longing for the chains that once held you? The wilderness is uncharted, and humans are prone to willful amnesia. We’d rather forget and return to bondage than remember and wade in the unknown. We grow numb.

Assata Shakur wrote, “People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows.…But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.” And the freer one gets, the more their hunger for liberation loudens. All the false appetites that spoke over this chief desire begin to quiet.

How does your hunger sound? What are the whispers of desire that drive you?

For forty days leading to the remembrance of the death of Christ, we commit to remembering our chains. We make our home in the wilderness — in the liminal spaces where liberation has begun but sorrow and hunger remain. In this season, we choose solidarity with all who are suffering — the displaced, the abused, the oppressed and neglected.

Many of us have been trained to believe Lent is about solidarity with Christ alone. But Christ’s forty days in the desert mirror the forty years the Israelites journeyed in the wilderness after being rescued from slavery. The two journeys remind us that the wilderness can be both solitary and communal. That it can defy both the systems and powers of the exterior world, and the despair of one’s interior world. And that these were two physical desert journeys speaks to a necessarily embodied liberation.

As we move in solidarity, we remind ourselves presence is not solidarity. Knowledge is not solidarity. Solidarity is the kind of unity that costs us something. And we choose a form for our fasting that is not about the self, but about those who are most vulnerable. And for those who are suffering and in need, we must grab hold of a charity to self and take a posture of receiving. Lent shifts the scales of the cosmos back toward a balance of provision and justice. In Lent, there are those of us who will position our souls toward sacrifice, and some who will rightfully receive what has been kept from them. Every role holy and necessary for the healing of all.

So, despite prevalent teachings, the question of this sacred season is not, What food are you giving up for Lent? It is, What practice of solidarity with the suffering are you choosing? Or, What needs do you need met this Lent? We honor the complexity of hunger and desire, and we find ourselves liberated into a season not rooted in scarcity, but in justice, healing, and the welfare of those who have long awaited their portion.


Praise to the God who is well acquainted with the wilderness but will never abandon us to it. Amen.

Excerpted from “Black Liturgies: Prayers, Poems and Meditations for Staying Human,” by Cole Arthur Riley. Copyright © 2024 by Cole Arthur Riley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.