During Lent, a common topic of conversation revolves around what each person has given up. If you must ask, I am fasting from alcohol, meat, and sugars.
I didn’t choose these things to demonstrate my spiritual prowess, to recalibrate my alcohol consumption, or to lose some weight. Rather, these are all celebratory foods in my life. These foods carry meaning that contradicts the repentant spirit of Lent.
Abstaining from them is a way that I can practice my faith in a bodily way. Rather than framing my fast as a “giving up,” I understand it is a turning toward the spirit of repentance, mourning and sacrifice in the Lenten season. Fasting illuminates my other practices such as reading, praying the scriptures, and serving my sisters and brothers.
When I laid down my plans for this fast, I realized that I’d long before committed to a weekend-long celebratory visit with family and friends smack dab in the middle of Lent. I contemplated being a fuddy-duddy for the weekend, but refusing their hospitality seemed rude and contradictory to the joyfulness of the baptism we are gathering to celebrate.
I imagine that I’m not the first Christian to face this sort of dilemma. I say this with confidence because the tradition of the church actually provides a way forward. While every Sunday is a feast day in the church in which we celebrate the resurrection, the fourth Sunday of Lent is called Laetare Sunday, literally Joyful Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday.
On this Sunday, the difficult fasting of Lent is disrupted by a hopeful embodied reminder that Easter is in sight. With the fasting on hold, flowers are placed back on the altar, priests wear rose vestments for joy instead of the mournful purple of Lent, and the story of five loaves is reminds hearers of the miraculous provision of God.
As luck (or someone’s clever and deliberate planning) would have it, the weekend of the baptismal celebration falls on Laetare Sunday (March 30). The liturgical tradition offers a way forward for my particular dilemma and for all of us engaged in bodily repentance. It isn’t just an excuse to bend the rules. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of our frailty and our need to embody hopefulness in a season of restriction and constraint.
Our churches, ministries and organizations often experience seasons of restriction. One might quickly consider moments of financial constraint during which we set out new slimmed-down budgets and forge into our institutional fasts. But we might also consider times when leadership transitions require us to dedicate time and energy into giving up some of our well-worn habits and learning new ways. Or during the launch of a new initiative and program, we may find the rigor of the new work too demanding to sustain.
The liturgical practice of Laetare Sunday presents us with a possibility to interrupt our hard institutional or personal work and practices with faithful intention, to pause in the midst of weariness and look forward to practice hopefulness.
We may host a party when we meet financial goals, indulge in a reflective retreat, or plan a day to play and laugh with our colleagues. We may indulge in celebratory foods and sing our Alleluias for a moment in the midst of fasting to remind our bodies and our spirits that resurrection is not far away. After all, as a people who follow the resurrected Christ, it is the hopefulness in the resurrection that informs and guides our very existence.