Renouncing Self-Centered Renunciation

CrossofashesWith Ash Wednesday we begin a season of self-denial featuring prayer and fasting. We also renounce other pleasures to help us curb our desires a bit more than we do the rest of the year.

The asceticism of self-denial, especially that of fasting gives us an important of the interaction between mimetic realism. There is a paradoxical effect of self-denial that we can fall victim to if we are not careful. It is possible for self-denial to focus us upon ourselves in an unhealthy way. It is I who am fasting. I am giving up pleasures I normally indulge in. If we become so fixated on ourselves, we are puffing ourselves up rather than denying ourselves. Isaiah shows how such self-centered fasting leads to quarreling and fighting and striking others with their fists. (Isaiah 58:4) If self-denial has made us so grouchy that we have to make up for what we are giving up by giving ourselves the alternate pleasure of striking out at other people and putting them down, then it is grouchiness and lashing out at others that we must fast from.
Likewise, Jesus warns us against putting on long faces so that others will admire our fasting or blowing trumpets to call attention to our almsgiving (Mt. 6: 1-2). Once again, our self-denial is being compensated for by self-indulgence in other ways. When the admiration of others is filling our egos, then we need to fast from seeking such admiration. We may well find that this renunciation is harder than renouncing food and other pleasures. As we deepen renunciation, we become aware of deeper levels of our desires that need to be turned into a more positive direction.

Given this pitfall, I suggest that we emphasize the needs of other people and renounce ourselves by thinking of them rather than about ourselves. Isaiah suggests that a better fast would be to let the oppressed go free and loosen every yoke. (Is. 58: 6). Jesus echoes Isaiah’s sentiments at the beginning of his teaching ministry by proclaiming a Year of Jubilee that would free all people of their imprisonment to debt so as to give all a new start in life. (Luke 4: 16-20 Instead of puffing ourselves up, we should build up other people. Perhaps we will find this to be a greater renunciation that cutting back on our eating habits. In any case, renunciations of food and other pleasures will help us grow spiritually only if they are the basis for reaching out to other people. When we really think of others, we have less room in our hearts to think about ourselves.

 

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Above the Circle of the Earth

treespath1The Babylonian exile was traumatic for the Jews. Those who were taken to Babylon had to live in an alien environment quite contrary to everything they believed in. But an interesting thing happened during this exile. The sages and prophets who were living in exile came to close quarters with the mythology and sacrificial religion of their captors. When the Jews had come close to the Canaanite religion earlier in their history, the clash had taught them a few things about what the God they worshipped was all about. When the prophets saw the sacrifices of children to Moloch, they knew that this was not the kind of sacrifice Israel’s God wished and they protested these sacrifices with all their might. In Babylon, they came up against a mythology of a violent creation that took place with the dismemberment of Tiamat who, of course, was the deemed the cause of all the problems among the deities and who had to be punished. Moreover, the reason for creating the world was to make servants who would serve the gods. The sages and prophets learned from this mythology that this was not what their God was about. The God who had delivered them from the Red Sea was freeing slaves; not making them. This God had created a people by delivering them from violence and from a violent culture. They were hoping their God would do it again, and God did just that when the Persians defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their home.

The Creation narrative that begins the book of Genesis can easily be read as a refutation of Babylonian mythology. Far from creation emerging from violence, creation emerges from the Word of God which allows creation to be. The prophet we call Second Isaiah also proclaims Israel’s God to be far different, fully Other, than Marduk and his pantheon. “With whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?” asks Israel’s God in a question so rhetorical that it stops all human mouths (Is. 40: 25.) The violence in Babylonian mythology mirrors the violence of Babylonian culture and other human cultures as both deities and humans live in the same system of retributive violence. But Israel’s God “sits above the circle of the earth” (Is. 40:22.) That is, God is outside the system. From God’s vantage point, we are all like little grasshoppers. This God is the creator “of the ends of the earth.” Not only that, but God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Is. 40: 29.) Far from creating servants, God serves the creatures God has made and God serves most especially the powerless, like a rabble of slaves in Egypt and an exiled people in Babylon. Grasshoppers may be small in size but they are great in God’s care.

This vision of God as one who serves is embodied in Jesus as presented by Mark. Coming from outside the human system of violence, Jesus exorcises those who are possessed by their violent culture. Jesus serves Peter’s mother-in-law by healing her of a fever, thus allowing her to imitate Jesus by serving him, the disciples, and her family. Meanwhile, Jesus goes on to serve the many people who come to be healed of sickness and violence. Now God has come from “high above the circle of the earth” to serve us grasshoppers size.

Both Isaiah and Mark are showing us that creation is not a one-shot deal. Creation is a continuous process. God renews the strength of those who wait on God so that we can “mount up with wings like eagles.” Jesus uses the same creative power to heal sicknesses and drive away the violence that possesses us.

The question then is: Will we allow Jesus to bring us out of the exile into which violent human culture has captured us so that we can return to the world God created from the beginning—outside the System—or will we prefer to stay in exile?