Slowly starving

February 14th, 2018

At some point near the beginning of his seminar on food, eating, and the life of faith, Duke Divinity professor Norman Wirzba asks an insidious little question: “What does it say about us when we receive our food through a window?”

By asking that question near the beginning, Wirzba launches a semester-long adventure exploring what our ways of preparing and eating food say about how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive God.

Students inevitably come to at least one conclusion in response to Wirzba’s question. They quickly realize that our common practice of serving and receiving fast food through our car windows reflects a diminishing. 

We have taken something so essential to living, so intimate and sensual as taking a part of the world into our bodies, and reduced it to a simpler calculation. Fast food culture cultivates food and cuisine that only (and temporarily) satiates hunger pangs. It does little or nothing to incite awe, joy, delight, or pleasure. Fast food culture and the drive-thru window are devoid of mystery, emptied of the savoriness we know can come with a hearty home-cooked meal around the family table. Participating in the liturgy of the drive-thru window has reduced our eating—and ultimately our very bodies—to the level of necessity, rather than elevating it as a recognition of the Creator’s care for a fragile and mortal creation.

I am reflecting on food and Wirzba’s question as a way into thinking about Ash Wednesday, because surely few things remind us of our impermanence more than our need to eat.

And yet so much of our culture is ordered around controlling that need, satiating it as quickly and as conveniently as possible for us lest it become too painful a reminder of mortality’s sting. In fact, the convenience of convenience food has shaped us to be people who eat before we can ever actually be hungry, permanently delaying the realization that we deeply depend on food in order to live. We eat by way of drive-thru windows in order to avoid the very reality that Ash Wednesday is pressing us to see most clearly. The quick-serve counter is the ultimate anti-ascetical action: the fastness of the drive-thru directly counters the purifying grace of the Lenten fast.

Which brings me to the wider concern, a question that comes as a natural correlative to Wirzba’s own: “What does it say about the church when we offer ashes through a window?”

Now, I know that few-if-any of the congregations who offer “ashes to go” are necessarily doing so through car windows, but the question’s intention is nonetheless true. What are we communicating to ourselves and to the world through this mode?

As I listen to other pastors and leaders reflect on this practice, it seems fairly clear that most churches engage a to-go model as a visible and public practice of engagement. They are trying to increase their visibility in the community by offering this more convenient, more visible, lower commitment practice.

That is certainly an admirable impulse, especially given our call to be an evangelical people. But in doing so, have we not merely reduced ashes smeared onto a forehead into the ecclesial version of Starbucks’ red cup, a holiday hallmark of consumption cleaved from the season it was intended to announce?

I am quite certain that Ash Wednesday might actually be the church’s response to commodification and reductive living. Ash Wednesday might actually be how and when the church reminds herself how to speak of creatureliness, beauty, delight, life, and death in a world that seeks to bury these qualities.

To offer “ashes on the go” is to diminish, even pervert that response. It will blunt the harshness of “remember you are dust” that we so desperately need to hear. We cannot offer grace to a world that does not actually know what it is to starve—except by helping the world to become hungry again. 

So perhaps the better evangelistic question Ash Wednesday asks of us churchgoing folk is, how can we help our neighbors be hungry? 

Perhaps Ash Wednesday should be celebrated a bit more publicly. Take the liturgy—all of it—outdoors, maybe even to a public garden space. Teach our people the slower work of setting the table by inviting their neighbors and friends to the spaces of Lent. Teach with words that don’t reduce but elevate our ability to name our needs, our fears, and our mortality. 

Teach them how to talk about hunger so that they can help others become hungry in the right ways, for the right things.

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