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Friday’s Fast

This is part one in a four-part special Easter weekend series.

Click here to read part two, “Saturday: Looking Back.”

Click here to read part three, “Saturday: Looking Forward.”

Click here to read part four, “Sunday: The Abundance of Your Steadfast Love.”

Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out unceasingly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. ‘Why? Is he lost?’ said one. ‘Has he strayed away like a child?’ said another. ‘Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea voyage? Has he emigrated?’ the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub.

The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. ‘Where is God gone?’ he called out. ‘I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? – for even gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!’ –Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Madman,” from “The Gay Science.”

Over a century ago, the great (and greatly troubled) philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche penned this famous text in which a madman plays prophet. He reads the developments of his day in science, culture and philosophy, and predicts a future when the seeds of inquiry will have blossomed into a new human paradigm that no longer has use for belief in God. When someone in this future (which perhaps is our present) feels the wind, he doesn’t think of the Holy Spirit or John 3. She thinks of science. Or that it just feels good. God isn’t on the minds of men and women anymore– something incredible for most of Nietzsche’s contemporaries to conceive of. Perhaps that’s why he calls his character a madman, a poor lonely soul born before his time.

The tragedy is that Nietzsche himself became insane toward the end of his life. And while most historians agree that syphilis was the likely culprit, a few speculate that Nietzsche’s own depressing philosophy was partly to blame for his mental breakdown.

The unfortunate news today, for all of us mindful of Good Friday, is that God is dead. Try on just a few US statistics:

In America alone, 35.9 million people live below the poverty line, including 12.9 million children (US Census Bureau).

Almost 100 billion pounds of food is wasted in America each year. 700 million hungry human beings in different parts of the world would have gladly accepted this food.

Approximately 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the US.

More than 18% of Americans experience alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence at some time in their lives.

26 million Americans have chronic kidney disease and another 20 million are at risk (The Kidney Foundation).

The percentage of students who felt so depressed within the last school year that it was difficult to function one or more times: 43% (American College Health Association).

The percentage of students who seriously considered attempting suicide in the last school year one or more times: 9% (American College Health Association).

Every six seconds, a child dies hungry somewhere in the world.

God is dead. He is alive, but he is also dead. He is dead in these statistics. He is dead in war and domestic violence and hate crimes and racism and poverty and injustice, in abuse, addiction and depression and mental illness and loneliness and cancer, in AIDS and gripping doubt. God is so often so silent when we experience these things. And is it not enough to make us, also, lose our minds?

In the north, Easter is a spring holiday: a companion to thawing earth yielding good growing things, leaves and blossoms. We celebrate new life, figured in the resurrection. But resurrection is only one side of the Easter story. The southern hemisphere celebrates Easter in winter-bound autumn, while trees are wilting and birds are flying north to escape the impending frost. Easter is as much about death as it is about life.

Because of memory, if anything has ever been true, then there’s a sense in which it always will be. God is dead right now not because Nietzsche said so, but because we remember a time in humanity’s story when the fullness of the Father’s love was nailed to a tree, mocked, spat upon, beaten, and killed. God was dead then, and he is dead now too.

I like John the beloved. I don’t think God plays favorites; I don’t know if John really was more loved than the other eleven disciples, but I think the name we’ve given him merits some serious thought. Among the disciples, John certainly was not the greatest. According to tradition, he didn’t even die a martyr’s death (all the others did). In the book of Acts, whenever Peter and John are dragged before authorities, it’s Peter who does the talking. Peter the haughty, the one who denied Jesus, is made leader of the church. Not John. So then why is John beloved? What’s so special about him? The only thing really distinctive about John in the gospel records is that he was present at the crucifixion. Jesus’ other followers fled when their conquering King was captured. They closed their eyes in fear till resurrection morning. But John followed the Master into the most intimate and painful hours of his suffering. Can you imagine, with that perspective, how much it must have meant to John to see Jesus whole and victorious after the resurrection?

John was present, and it changed him. He alone of the disciples experienced the full panorama of the Easter story—he, the beloved. We too are called beloved. We too are invited to experience Easter from Friday through Sunday morning. There can be no resurrection without a cross, without a death. And so today, on this Good Friday, we are invited to be present to the death of God. Where do you see death? Is there death in you? Is the crucified God crucified in you on this most solemn of Fridays?

The first time I was truly present to death was about five years ago, when one of my classmates died in an accident. He was a stellar student and a lover of life, but somehow he stopped living. The most shocking part of it was that others continued to live—life went on. The sun came up the next day, Earth didn’t fall off its axis, and nothing exploded. That’s when I realized for the first time that everything I loved would one day come to an end and be forgotten: my family, the wild beauty of the sky, my writing, my memories, me.

Is there really anything that doesn’t die? People die, we know, but other things do too. Love fades and dies, as does innocence. Knowledge dies. Belief dies (people lose their faith). Those who haven’t experienced death of some kind probably have it coming shortly in the future.

Last summer a group of people in my church felt compelled to fast. It seemed like we’d come up against a brick wall in our outreach efforts, and we didn’t know what to do. Most of us didn’t even understand what fasting was or what it meant, but we still felt compelled to enter the experience because we were hungry for God’s guidance, hungry for his presence in our midst. Fasting was the only way he know how to express that hunger. As John Piper writes, we “Were hungry enough for God’s leading that [we] wanted to say it with the hunger of [our] bodies and not just the hunger of [our] hearts.”[1]

Our hunger became prayer. One of the things we noticed while not eating was that we couldn’t stop thinking about food. I found myself looking through cookbooks and planning meals. On the last day of our group fast, I went to the grocery store and purchased all kinds of beautiful vegetables and grains and food items I had never really appreciated before, and I prepared them. And I anticipated eating them. And as physical hunger made me aware of God’s absence, the promise of food became a symbol for me of his coming abundance. Like John who celebrated the resurrection after entering the death of God, how rich the food of God’s presence would taste after the fast—the flavorlessness, the bitterness—of his absence.

Traditionally, some groups of Christians have fasted on Good Friday in memory of Christ’s Passion. Whether we have chosen to abstain from food today or not, we can all feel hungry for justice and peace when we are present to the cross—present to statistics like those shared above. And our hunger can become prayer.[2] Our prayer can take us through Friday, across Saturday, and into the heart of Sunday’s resurrection. But no one gets to Sunday who cannot first be honest about Friday.

And so the question every person must ask himself or herself is, “How will I respond to this death of Friday that surrounds me, that threatens to consume me?”

Each person answers this question differently, but there are at least three responses I’ve observed:

First, some, acknowledging death’s horror, run away from it. They refuse to “fast.” Humans can gorge not just on food, but all sorts of numbing devices: work, friends, email, entertainment, etc. Friday never hurts too bad for those who run away, but such people also rarely experience the full depth of resurrection joy. They live shallow and superficial lives.

Second, some deny that death holds any power at all. They rush past Friday into a premature Sunday saying, “Christ’s resurrection has now invalidated death. Human pain is but a fleeting illusion.” Tell that to someone who has lost a child. Tell that to the friends of my dead classmate, to a woman who lives on the streets, to a man who has lived long years of loneliness, and see how it flies. All these wounds do matter. They hurt.

We can all be forgiven for not “feeling” the power death, since emotions are difficult to control. But we can still honor death by not denying or ignoring it. We can enter it with our minds, which is the third and healthiest response. This is what the gospel demands, what John the beloved did. Today, we can look death hard in the face. We should not look, yet, to the resurrection, or we will not even know what needs to be resurrected once we get there. We will be out of touch with the hurting who haven’t even heard that there is a resurrection. On Good Friday, we must drink the dregs of our own broken lives. With Jesus, by the power of Jesus, we must enter God’s gracious silence today.

And then in honesty, we can sing a new Hallelujah. I like the much-adapted Leonard Cohen version:

I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch

But love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah

And it’s not a cry you that you hear at night

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light

It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah

Let us pause and ask ourselves: “How am I responding to death right now? Am I being present? Am I entering the fast? Or am I gorging on mind-numbing distractions? Or have I treated it glibly, as if it doesn’t matter? Have I arrived at Easter resurrection prematurely, or by the grace of God am I right where I need to be on this Good Friday?

Today, God is dead. But his arms are holding us.

[1] Quoted in Scot McKnight, Fasting, xix

[2] For more on this, see Scot Knight, Fasting, which is part of the Ancient Practices Series edited by Phyllis Tickle.

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