Fasting, Sackcloth and Ashes
Then I turned to the Lord God to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying,
“Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you[a] and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.
“Righteousness is on your side, O Lord, but open shame, as at this day, falls on us, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them because of the treachery that they have committed against you. Open shame, O Lord, falls on us, our kings, our princes, and our ancestors because we have sinned against you. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, but we have rebelled against him and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.
In this chapter of the book of Daniel, the prophet confesses to the Lord God on behalf of “his people”—that is, the people of Israel. This scripture was written between 167-164 BCE in response to the Babylonian exile of 6th Century BCE. Daniel seeks to win God’s favor with fasting, sackcloth and ashes. Let me assure you, the Israelites were not doing an “intermittent fast” to lose weight as is the fad now. Fasting was part and parcel of a communal call on God to act when the odds seemed overwhelming. Fasting was not merely a rite used to ask for forgiveness but a plea to God to help those who couldn’t help themselves. Think of Esther and Job. And donning sackcloth and ashes was a public sign of repentance and humility before God, an outward expression of one’s inward condition. The fabric was coarse; the ashes, a signifier of a purifying fire having passed over and through. If you’re reading this, I’m betting you were smudged with ashes on Ash Wednesday. Did you also bare your sins before God? I am not sure what the modern-day equivalent of wearing sackcloth would be, but perhaps we should “fast” from shopping for garments of any kind. More important, let us refrain not only from our self-indulgent appetites and ways but our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts—the shopping, the alcohol, the desserts—but also the spiritual ones: the menacing day-to-day gossip, the cursing, the petty judgements, and especially the self-doubt and self-hatred that fuel them. Let’s start there and pray that the “open shame” of our own making falls no longer on us.
Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people, We confess to you, Lord. Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work, We confess to you, Lord. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 268)