If you visited my Cambridge apartment, you’d notice my stockpile of canned tomatoes. In the heat of the summer, I lug in heirloom varieties, blanching them, slipping their skins off and packing Ball jars full of their pink, yellow and bright-red flesh. I seal them in a hot water bath with a tablespoon of lemon juice.
I love fresh tomatoes so much that I don’t eat them nine months out of the year. I relish them for the three short months they’re in season, and then the rest of the year I catch the taste of summer only by cracking open one of my beautiful jars.
With the start of Lent, I’ve been thinking over the classic Lenten disciplines, fasting in particular. For New Englanders who strive to eat locally, Lent corresponds to the leanest weeks of the year.
As I glance at the last few butternut squash developing soft spots on my counter and open the refrigerator to find beets and carrots growing limp in the crisper, I wonder whether my particularity with tomatoes is a kind of fast.
I learned about heirloom tomatoes from a summer working on a small organic farm in Massachusetts. An “heirloom” is a plant, passed down through several generations, that is not hybridized -- not bred to favor traits that make it easy to store or transport.
Often, hybridizing sacrifices some of the fruit’s unique characteristics. The heirlooms’ colors, textures and poetic names make them almost unrecognizable to their supermarket kin: bright-green-striped Zebras; grapefruit-sized, yellow-and-red-striped Germans; lightly fuzzed, yellowy-orange Georgia Peaches.
Heirloom varieties can’t be marketed on a large scale, so eating them is not only a treat but also one small step toward preserving a culture of “local foods,” foods that are eaten close to where they’re grown.
Heirlooms are delicious, packed with flavor that the sturdy red bulbs shipped in from Mexico or Florida cannot mimic. So I wait, eagerly anticipating the sheer joy of the first summer slices. When summer ends, my carefully filled jars sit on my shelf, assuring for the heart of winter a sweet foretaste of July.
My history with fasting remains almost exclusively in the realm of “giving something up,” the seasonal abstention from a favorite treat that holds social traction at coffee hour and around the grade-school lunch table -- a kind of “fasting lite.”
The word “fast” comes from the Old English “fasten,” which means to hold firm or fast to a principle or an idea. Lent has none of Advent’s festivities or focal characters, but this notion of holding firm is oddly attractive.
Giving something up, holding firm in the name of the Lenten season, was the first spiritual discipline I undertook as a child. I gave up potato chips for Lent one year, and soda the next. I was enamored of the test of willpower. Holding firm isn’t something often encouraged in our culture, and I was interested in the discipline. Giving something up affected my daily living and how I felt in my body.
I’d look forward to a root beer or chip binge on Easter, but when the day finally arrived, it never tasted that good. In fact, I found that the practice of giving something up had led to a habit. I never really went back to eating chips or drinking soda.
Giving something up felt like a test of willpower, but I was also cultivating a habit. I knew I’d benefit by abstaining from junk food, and the liturgical year offered me a reason to begin.
In “The Irrational Season,” Madeleine L’Engle tells of the lists she once kept as Lent approached, “lists of small things to give up.” But the notion of simple, short-term deprivation didn’t sit well with her: “It occurred to me that if what I was giving up was something bad, it should be given up once and for all, and not just for forty days and forty nights.”
I like the idea of long-term discipline born of giving something up -- using the Lenten season to cultivate a practice, committing to 40 days and nights while hoping to develop a habit.
During Lent, we enter wilderness time and we trim down our lives in order to journey with Jesus. We give money; we pray and repent; we become aware of our excesses and indulgences through fasting. In a world that draws us in so many directions at once, these practices allow us to focus, to find a path through the array of options, to allow ourselves to be shaped by our doing.
My tomato fast is one such habit-building process. Perhaps it seems inconsequential, but it’s training for the countercultural work that’s needed today.
I’m far from the first to connect ethics and the demands of the present moment with the Lenten practice of fasting. In the last five years, I’ve watched the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast grow. To participate, you sign up online and the UCC sends you an email each day suggesting ways to limit your carbon footprint, from walking to work to divesting from fossil fuel companies. The Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast describes itself as an opportunity for people of faith “to become more conscious and conscientious in their daily lives.”
The hope of the carbon fast is to cultivate a habit. One takes small steps for 40 days, hoping to carry the practices beyond Lent.
Ultimately, a fast that cultivates a habit is a win for the world. It helps us use a season to set our paths straight, to journey toward a future that the world is longing for.
May your Lenten practices help you cultivate the habits this world needs. May your Lent offer a glimpse of the kingdom in the midst of the winter wilderness, a foretaste, sweet as summer. Amen.