Lent is traditionally a time for giving things up, and in particular for fasting, giving up food for a period. We live in a world of contradictions and inequalities, and our attitudes to food show these up starkly. Below is the text of a sermon preached by Jeremy Caddick, the Dean, on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Lent is the time when may people give up things – things such as chocolate. Until quite recently on the side of one brand of chocolate bar, a Snickers bar, you could read the slogan, Hungry? Why wait? It is a good question to ponder as we begin Lent.
Hungry? Why wait? Of course, it’s a rhetorical question. What you are supposed to do is make a mental note than when you are next in the middle of doing something and lunchtime seems rather distant the answer to that slight feeling that is just beginning to grow in the pit of your stomach is…a bar of chocolate! It is, of course, assumed that the answer to this question is so completely obvious that no-one would even hesitate over it. It is just so self evident that waiting is not an option that it is not worth even considering.
Hungry? Why wait? Part of the message of Lent, and of Ash Wednesday, is precisely to answer this question, that the marketing managers of Snickers seemed to think is so entirely content-less that it can be used as an advertising slogan. There are many reasons to wait, once you start thinking about it, and all the things that we do for Lent, giving up chocolate bars or whatever, are designed precisely to make us think about it.
Hungry? Why wait? There are two reasons in particular that I would like to think about this evening, one has to do with other people, the other has to do with us.
First, other people. There are plenty of people in the world who don’t have a choice about whether they wait or not - people for whom hunger is a fact of life, and one about which they can do nothing. And it is not just that there is inequality in the world, as an unfortunate fact of life as it were. That we live in a society where waiting when you are hungry is a laughable thing to do is directly due to the exploitation of those who don’t have the choice about whether to wait or not. The inequalities of the market and the burden of third world debt stack the economic cards against those at the bottom of the heap. In solidarity with them we should at least hesitate over the Snickers bar question. Waiting because millions of our brothers and sisters have to wait is an obligation that is imposed by our common humanity. Lent is a good opportunity to do that.
Secondly we should wait, at least occasionally, for our own sake. We live, as we are constantly told, in a society that craves instant satisfaction. Why wait? could be its motto. “Buy now, pay later?” Alcohol, pills, recreational drugs are resorted to in increasing quantities as a quick route out of the tensions and frustrations of modern life.
Much of the problem lies in our increasing inability to manage desire. That is true generally but particularly so in relation to eating. Anorexics and compulsive eaters can be seen as two sides of the same coin: anorexics are so afraid of appetite and desire that they try to deny it; compulsive eaters are eating, as it were, prophylactically, before they get into the position of experiencing need. And it is need that unbearable.
Hungry? Why wait? Why indeed? Nobody else is. But it is precisely because nobody else seems to be waiting, that deliberately waiting becomes an act of calculated defiance, something deliberately subversive of the bloated, shallow culture of plenty.
Deliberately being hungry is a quite inexplicable thing in a society that demands instant satisfaction. In our snacking culture it is quite possible never to be hungry, simply to forget what it feels like. Yet being hungry, not running to the vending machine when the ache starts in the pit of your stomach, is to linger over a longing that that lies behind other longings. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” says Jesus. Hunger is a picture of all the long term longings that we have, all the things that drive forward the enterprise of being human, of making a better world. We must hunger for something if it is to come to be, and the more worthwhile it is the more we have to hunger for it (often).
Deliberately being hungry is fasting. Isaiah talks about it in this evening’s first reading. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Hungry? Why wait? By waiting, by deliberately being hungry for a period, perhaps missing a meal and then giving the money we would have spent to a development charity, we both show our solidarity with those who have no choice but to be hungry, and we remind ourselves of the longings that form an essential part of the human condition - the longings, the hungers, that draw us towards God.