Echo: Faith Formation Leadership Program, University of Notre Dame (Echo 7)
Apprentice Catechetical Leader, Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Angleton, TX
Angleton, Texas had a difficult week. On Wednesday morning, January 11, ten students and two former students were arrested at Angleton High School in an undercover drug bust that had been in the works for months. These arrests drew national media coverage. Four days later, an intruder stabbed two elderly people in their home just blocks from Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church.
Police investigated the stabbing while twenty-one youth from our parish (the only Catholic parish in Angleton, pop. 18,862), set up about a dozen cardboard boxes on the church lawn to serve as their shelters for the night. The sun set gently, and as two fathers helped participants to build, no one would have predicted the temperature’s plunge ten degrees below the forecasted forty-five. On the other hand, adult leaders wondered whether to let the youth sleep outside if, when the time came, police had not yet detained a suspect in the stabbing.
As part of a 24-hour Food Fast retreat, the youth had agreed to leave behind food and their warm beds in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who face hunger and homelessness. Like the magi, as T.S. Eliot imagines them, the youth experienced unexpected vulnerability and even harshness during their journey:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly. (T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi,” 1-5, 13-20)
By bedtime, most of our hunger pangs had given way to a dull weariness, but in the middle of the night, one young person awoke feeling sharply hungry. A voice responded from the swaddle of blankets next to her: “Think about how many other people in the world are going hungry right now.” Her friend invited her to remember their purpose, their destination.
One of the first activities of the day had invited the youth to consider the purpose of their fast. Catholic Relief Services, which provides resources for Food Fasts across the country (foodfast.org), asked the youth to reflect on Isaiah 58:6-11, Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritatis in veritate 27, and parts of the U.S. Bishops’ statements on Global Climate Change and Called to Global Solidarity. Participants also considered the meanings of our Lenten and Eucharistic fasts and of the Lord’s Supper for their own relationship with food.
Many explained their purpose for fasting as “to grow closer to God” or “to walk in another person’s shoes.” Certainly, the primary reason for the Food Fast was to taste, through learning and experience, the ways of life of so many of our brothers and sisters. On the other hand, “to grow closer to God” is one of those universally applicable responses as to the purpose of attending some event at church. Sometimes, the answer contains all the authenticity in the world. This time, for example, no one forced the youth to fast and sleep in cardboard boxes. More than one participant had friends who thought this ordeal absurd. And it is beautiful that the youth trust that these events at church will bring them closer to God. A local reporter asked one young person what she and the others would get out of this fast, and she responded that they would get whatever God wanted them to get out of it (The Facts, 18 January 2012). Without at all diminishing this general way of saying it, the purpose can also be put more specifically. The fast offered the opportunity to get closer to the suffering Christ, who is hidden not simply as a young boy in the Temple but in our neighbor, our humanity, our own hunger and thirst in whatever physical or spiritual or emotional form they take. The fast also offered the opportunity to encounter Christ in the community of believers who shared the journey.
This community of believers extended beyond the participants and even beyond the parishioners who prayed, donated coats and blankets to charity, and cooked a break-fast meal. As parishioners arrived at 5 p.m., 8 a.m., and 10 a.m., they saw cardboard shelters on the grass and cardboard signs painted with the words, “We do not live by bread alone” (Mt 4:4) and “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mi 6:8). They listened to a homily about “coming to see” where Jesus dwells (Jn 1:35-42). Finally, at the 10 a.m. Mass, the assembly ended their Eucharistic fast and the youth ended their Food Fast with Holy Communion. The assembly commissioned the youth to go forth as beacons of the light of Christ.
The purposes of the fast for solidarity, before Eucharist, and during Lent are not synonymous, but they are intimately tied so that the Food Fast paints a new layer onto the significance of fasting in our parish’s imagination. Through the Eucharistic fast, we hope to attain the faith by which to confess and receive Christ’s humanity and divinity hidden in “this outward shape and form” (Adoro Te Devote). In fasting in solidarity with the poor, we hope to attain the eyes to see and love Christ hidden in our neighbors, and to receive them as Christ (Mt 25:31-40). Both fasts are opportunities to do penance and allow God to realign our desires.
In Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of his Spirit, the fullness of truth is already revealed. Jesus affirms our celebration in his words, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast” (Mk 2:19). He continues, however, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day” (Mk 2:20). Our fasting, then, is the kind of fasting that happens after his death, resurrection, and ascension and before his coming in glory. We fast in order to be united ever more closely to Him as his Paschal Mystery pours out during the liturgical year. Thus our fasting, including at this Food Fast, points us as a community to the Lord God who is and who was – and who is yet to come (Rv 1:8).
Therefore, for now, we long with joy for the fullness of Christ. We rely on the theological virtue of hope. In T.S. Eliot’s imagination, the magi said of their arrival where Jesus lay, “it was (you may say) satisfactory” (“Journey of the Magi,” 31). Satisfactory comes from facere, to do, and satis, enough. Because of Christ, we know that ultimately, our humanity will do. In him, our humanity has been made enough that we may someday see the face of God. The fast, then, is a sign of hope: a proclamation of the insufficiency of the world and history on their own and a proclamation of the immanent redemption of both in the person of Christ.
When asked what they would take away from this experience, many youth focused on the experience itself. They had an easy time articulating the good of exiting their comfort zone – as they said it, “walking in someone else’s shoes.” They have shared in others’ suffering and so practiced com-passio. Our work now is the translation of that experience into everyday life: where will we go from here? How does that feeling, that experience of meaningful suffering or sacrifice, transform our relationships with God and with our brothers and sisters? Who is Christ, that when we walk in our neighbors’ shoes we walk with him?
In T.S. Eliot’s poem, as the magi returned to their “places,” their “Kingdoms” (40), they were “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation” (41). The way things were, no longer worked for them. In Angleton, the elderly stabbing victim died, and his wife remained in intensive care several days later. Drugs warp the lives of high school and junior high school students. Across the planet, 1.4 billion people still live on less than $1.25 per day (2011 Hunger Report, Bread for the World).
The good news, the substance of our hope, is that after and before and in the middle of what is unsatisfactory, there is enough. After our fast was the Eucharist, and after the Eucharist was an abundance of delicious tamales, enchiladas, brownies, cookies, rice, beans, and nachos. Over half the participants applied to be volunteers at the local women’s center. Grace flooded the hearts of our parishioners, for whom the youth became signs of hope.
As Ordinary Time begins again, green liturgical vestments remind us that this is a season for growth and hope. Jesus’ solidarity with us, his becoming flesh and dwelling among us, moves us to be prophets of his truth. Receiving the new life Jesus offers, may we return to our places certain and hopeful, satisfied and hungry.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied (Mt 5:6).