Father Steve examines the Church’s practice of abstinence and fasting as a means to support the demands of our mission in Christ. This article is a first in a series of reflections offered by the Word on Fire staff in regards to the Lenten practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.
A few months ago, my good friend Ben Wellenbach, who is an athletic trainer extraordinaire, challenged me to clean up my diet. Now, here’s the thing about that—I am not someone who would be inclined (at least at this point in my life) to diet so as to lose weight. I exercise regularly and do so (I would like to think) with the ferocity of a trained athlete. For me, physical training is as integral to one’s capacity to serve the Church’s mission as a priest as is fidelity to the promises of the priestly state of life, intellectual curiosity, and dedication to the practices of prayer. Ben invited me to change my diet because he observed that what training I did accomplish would remain at a status quo level until I modified my diet.
Anyone who has ever met me knows that there is something amusing about Ben’s recommendation: my favorite foods are oatmeal and broccoli (eaten separately of course). I am not a gourmand, and I eat mostly for energy or to take away the hungry feeling rather than to indulge in pleasure of savory treats. You won’t find me loading up on desserts at the Old Country Buffet. The amount of processed foods I was eating at the time of Ben’s recommendation would probably be, for most folks, considered austere.
What precisely would I have to change? Ben’s recommendations basically had me sacrificing the oatmeal and eating more of the broccoli. The other adjustments were minor. He had me eating foods that God made and that were prepared with as little creaturely intervention as possible.
After nine weeks I dropped almost 20 pounds.
But I didn’t get skinny or weak. In fact, the evidence of any weight loss was mostly in my waist and nowhere else. In terms of athletic performance, I got stronger, and in terms of the rest of my life’s endeavors, I became more focused. Basically, what Ben mostly asked of me was to abstain from foods that I preferred to eat, not foods that were necessary for survival, or even from things that were tasty. There was no real fasting, but I did discover that on the occasion when I just couldn’t get to the office without first having breakfast, my capacity to endure a lack of food did not send me into a tailspin. The change in diet compelled my metabolism to become more efficient and to deal better with having less. The positive effect far outweighed any feeling of deprivation...
Jonah is a pretty relatable guy. Not only is he the most reluctant of the prophets (doing God's will doesn't always come easy to us), but his actions wind up demonstrating how God works in our ultimate best interest. Father Steve examines the lessons of Jonah today, in the Word on Fire blog.
I have come to understand the story of the prophet Jonah as a combination of comedy, action adventure, and densely textured theological narrative—all this is meant to communicate the mystery of vocation, mission, the identity of the God of Israel, as well as his relationship with both Israel and her enemies. All this is wrapped up tightly in one of the best-told tales in all of the Bible.
The Book of the Prophet Jonah makes it clear from the beginning that Jonah doesn’t want to be a prophet; he is summoned by the Lord to fulfill a prophet’s mission but he goes the complete opposite direction of where the Lord wants him to go! Once he reaches his destination, the scriptures tell us that he barely opens his mouth to speak God’s word of truth, and much to his surprise (and even to his consternation), he becomes the most successful prophet in the history of Israel.
I experience Jonah’s laconic proclamation as one of the most creatively comedic moments in Biblical literature: “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be destroyed.” Read the elegantly crafted prophetic texts of Isaiah or Jeremiah and compare then with Jonah’s proclamation that, in its brevity, seems like a throw-away line. Yet it is Jonah’s seemingly whispered warning that is what convinces the Ninevites to repent.
The story of Jonah is meant to delight and to teach. What is the lesson?
One way to look at the lesson of the Book of Jonah is that most of us are, like Jonah, reluctant prophets. We have received the Word of the Lord. We have been given a mission through our Baptism to speak God’s Truth. But does our witness resonate with scarcely a sound above a whisper?
Granted, the Lord has a way of doing magnificent things with whatever we are willing to give him (no matter how small). The Book of the Prophet Jonah demonstrates the principle that we can, like Jonah, scarcely open our mouths to give testimony to the truth and God can give that witness the power to bring down empires. God can work with our weakness—but I don’t think that the lesson here is a ratification of our reluctance or reticence...