One year, when I started attending a church that held an Ash Wednesday service, I decided to keep a Christian tradition of fasting from food during the daylight hours of Ash Wednesday. I had breakfast that morning and then did not eat again until after the church service that evening. In the afternoon, I began feeling sluggish from skipping lunch. By the time I was at the Ash Wednesday service, my stomach was gnawing at me, and my whole body felt weak and faint. I could not concentrate on anything happening in worship because of how hungry I was. I did not understand how anyone could pray or focus on God while fasting when all I could do was hope that I would not pass out—which thankfully I did not.
Lent is not an easy season for embodied people. The season calls Christians to take on disciplines like fasting and self-denial, reckon with our sin, and follow Jesus’s journey to certain suffering and death in a landscape marked by Christianity’s 2000-year-old struggle with human bodies and flesh. With all of these threads running through our liturgies and practices, our faith can get tangled up in confusing and even harmful messages about our bodies.
- Bodies are sinful or shameful
- Bodies are weak
- Bodily needs should be suppressed, especially in relation to spiritual needs
- Bodily suffering is part of God’s will
- God won’t forgive me unless I steep my body in guilt and shame
- Bodies don’t matter to God
When these beliefs go unchallenged, Lent can become a well-intentioned tool that ends up turning Christians against our own bodies in the name of God. Not only can a body-antagonistic Lent compromise Christians’ bodily safety and well-being, but it can also keep us from discerning body-affirming ways through the season.
I believe that the forty-day Lenten journey to Easter is about a God who chooses solidarity with embodied people and stands up for liberation and life all the way to the end. Lent gives us a season to dwell with this God as embodied persons created and cherished by God. We just need to untangle some threads to get there.
The long-standing Lenten tradition of fasting can get theologically sticky for several reasons. Depriving the body of food is not safe for all Christians to practice. Because Jesus does it successfully in the synoptic gospels, fasting can become a pressure-filled practice for following in Jesus’s footsteps. When fasting is a means of suppressing the body to grow closer to God, it casts bodies and their needs or desires as problems rather than as gifts. Fasting can be exclusionary, shame-inducing, and disempowering, particularly in the context of American society’s food inequities and toxic body image norms.
The good news is that Lent makes space for alternative ways to navigate fasting. One of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday, Isaiah 58:1–12, envisions a liberating, life-giving fast characterized by actions like “loos[ing] the bonds of injustice,” “let[ting] the oppressed go free,” “shar[ing] your bread with the hungry,” “bring[ing] the homeless poor into your house,” “cover[ing] [the naked],” and “satisfy[ing] the needs of the afflicted” (vv. 6, 7, 10, NRSVUE). This kind of fast involves acknowledging and meeting the needs of bodies, especially those most vulnerable and disempowered. Liberation from oppression, bodily flourishing, communal flourishing, and relationship with God are not at odds with one another; they nurture and sustain one another.
If we take our theological cues from Isaiah, Lenten fasting can become a liberating, body-affirming practice. Here are a few questions to help Christians discern fasting practices, whether related to food or not, that are rooted in bodily flourishing:
- What kind of fasting practice will honor my body’s safety and well-being?
- What kind of fasting practice will help me better perceive my body and its needs as good gifts, just as they are?
- What kind of fasting practice will promote liberation, justice, and bodily flourishing for my whole community, especially for our most vulnerable and disempowered members?
Lent’s emphasis on addressing sin is another fraught path for bodies. Western Christian tradition has long laid blame for sin upon the body and its desires (especially sexual). It has also propagated patriarchal, colonizing, white supremacist, heteronormative, and ableist construals of sin, casting sin in the image of bodies that identify as girls and women, nonbinary bodies, Indigenous bodies, Black bodies, Brown bodies, LGBTQIA+ bodies, and bodies with disabilities, and salvation in the image of cis men’s bodies, European bodies, white bodies, and non-disabled bodies. Its dominant understandings of atonement for sin have turned to guilt, shame, sacrifice, and suffering as mechanisms for reconciliation with God. When Lent calls Christians to confess and repent from sin, then, we can get stuck in shaming, hating, punishing, and condemning bodies in order to please God.
To find a different way of reckoning with sin in Lent, we need to reexamine our understanding of sin. A helpful starting point is to define sin in relation to God as eternal loving one, who creates, liberates, and resurrects to new life. Often Christian ideas of sin correlate with a portrait of God that puts a limit on God’s love when sin enters the picture. It’s as if God has to become a different God, a God that can only love you up until the point that God has to judge and condemn you for sin, or a God that cannot be anywhere near you if you do something labeled a sin or are identified as a sinner.
If we let God be a God of unconditional love, though, who invites all creatures into unending life and love with God as well as with one another, we can reconceive of sin in terms of human action—personal and social—that works to undo this love and life among God and God’s creation. Instead of creating, sin is “de-creation,” to use womanist theologian Shawn Copeland’s term from Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (pp. 52, 57). Instead of liberating, sin affects oppression, injustice, and disempowering relationships. Instead of resurrecting, sin puts to death. As a “Prayer of Confession” in Enriching Our Worship puts it, sin involves “den[ying] your [God’s] goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created” (p. 19).
This reframing of sin not only gives divine love the first and last word, but also enables us to put a halt to aligning embodiment with sin. It provides space for affirming the goodness of all bodies and God’s loving presence with all bodies, which sin does not have the power to end. It also points us toward the social and cosmic shape of redeemed life with God, which also helps us perceive social and structural propagations of sin.
Here are a few ideas for bringing this perspective on God’s love, embodiment, and sin into Lent:
- Critically assess treatments of sin in Lent that figure sin in terms of the body or of the bodies of a group of people: How can our talk about sin uphold the inherent goodness of all bodies, especially those whom our society marginalizes or devalues?
- Turn to the triune life of our unconditionally loving God (creating, liberating, and resurrecting) as a guide for discerning and confessing sin: What actions have worked against God’s love? What actions have worked against the life into which God invites all bodies and all creation? How has sin (personal, social, or structural) compromised our communal and social life together with God?
- Approach repentance as an embodied practice of love and liberation: The words for repentance in scripture are not about dwelling in feelings of guilt or shame but about turning around and returning to God. How can we practice repentance as turning toward God’s love and living into new life with God and all of creation, rather than as dwelling in guilt or shame? How might God’s loving presence free us to extend love and compassion to our own bodies and the bodies of others as we make amends with others and return to God?
Jesus’s Suffering and Self-denial
A final place where Lent can become problematic for bodies is in its treatment of Jesus’s suffering in crucifixion in conjunction with the call to self-denial. The entanglement of these threads has roots in the gospel narratives that show Jesus instructing those who want to follow him to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34, NRSVUE; see also Matthew 16:24 and Luke 9:23). When these themes intersect in Lent, self-denial can become a dangerous practice of denying the body or taking on suffering to be like Jesus.
The most helpful resource I have encountered for sorting through these difficult touchstones is womanist biblical scholar Raquel St. Clair’s book Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark. In it, she challenges the idea that Jesus is calling people either to “selfless[ness]” (p. 134) or to suffering in order to be his disciples.
According to St. Clair, the ancient social context for this gospel text would have understood self-denial in a “collectivistic” rather than “individualistic” way (p. 134). Self-denial would have meant giving up an identity defined by belonging to one community, particularly a “kinship group,” and receiving an identity defined by belonging to Jesus’s community as “one’s new group” (p. 135). She also shows how the literary context for this gospel text characterizes discipleship not as suffering but as “following Jesus in a ministry similar to his” (p. 133)—a ministry that actually involves “alleviation and eradication of agony” for people (p. 163). She notes that although followers of Jesus might experience pain as a “consequence” of ministering with him in the face of “opposition” (p. 158), suffering is not a “necessity” or a virtue for discipleship (pp. 127, 132–33, 164).
If we apply St. Clair’s insights to the Lenten season, we can reinterpret self-denial as well as Jesus’s journey to crucifixion in body-affirming ways. These suggestions can provide starting points for critical and careful reflection:
- Resituate self-denial in social and communal frameworks: What if we reshaped self-denial for contemporary American contexts as gaining liberation from society’s oppressive definitions of who you are so that you can be who you truly are in Jesus’s community? How might our churches more fully embrace the call within self-denial to be communities where embodied people can be who they truly are and create belonging together in Jesus?
- Reject human-inflicted suffering as virtuous or as God’s will: How can we “respect the dignity” of our own bodies, to borrow from the Episcopal Church’s Baptismal Covenant (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305), as we follow Jesus? How can we speak truthfully about human-inflicted suffering as unjust?
- Affirm the dignity of Jesus’s body in crucifixion and name the injustice of his suffering, humiliation, and execution: Similarly, how can we remember Jesus’s crucifixion in ways that do not glorify his suffering but acknowledge the injustice of this violent Roman imperial instrument of domination? How can we underscore Jesus’s embodied humanity at the cross?
Fasting, sin, self-denial, and Jesus’s suffering all contribute to the meaning that Lent holds for Christians’ lives of faith. They can be turned into sites for taking the season out on our bodies, but they don’t have to be. Our theologies and practices in Lent can actually help us stand in solidarity with our own bodies, the bodies of others, and a God embodied in solidarity with us. When I picture a Lent embodied like this, I can’t imagine a better way to get ready for Easter.
Copeland, M. Shawn. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010.
St. Clair, Raquel A. Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.