Our pregnant ewes have huge appetites these days! They’ve been feasting on beautiful orchard grass hay I managed to find despite the summer’s drought. The sound of their chomping and the sight of their faces eagerly shoved into the hay feeder sorta remind me of the family-style Sunday afternoon feasts at my Nonna’s table, our stark-white plates piled high with spaghetti and meatballs served with round loaves of hard-crust Italian bread. No one spoke much, except for Nonna who urged us to "Mangia!" the minute anyone lost momentum. The meal itself was the main event but tucked into its ingredients was a powerful testimony to a grandmother’s enduring love, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
Now that the trifecta of food-feasts (Thanksgiving, Christmas & New Year's Day) is in the rearview mirror, I’m eager to balance the excess with some good old-fashioned self-discipline and intermittent fasting. Sometimes my fasting is simply a dietary thing; other times it takes on a decidedly spiritual quality. With the next great feast of Easter around the corner, preceded by Christ's passion, this seems like a good time to prepare for the more vigorous fasting requirements and disciplines the Lenten season will bring. But the preparation won’t necessarily come from what does or doesn’t pass over my lips. For me, it will come from consuming the Word of God in greater portions than usual and with a deeper hunger that reflects both my personal needs and the times in which we live.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all relate the story of how Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, where he fasted and prayed for 40 days and nights. St. Mark tells us only that he was surrounded by wild beasts and that angels ministered to him. I suppose he assumed our holy imaginations would grasp the intensity of Christ’s suffering—deprived of food, shelter, companionship, and all the other comforts his human nature would naturally crave. And then to add to his trials, at his weakest point, Satan appeared, wielding Scripture like a club and peddling a trio of temptations that put Jesus' fidelity to his Father to the test. And where did the devil start? With food, of course!
"He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.' But he answered, it is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’" (Matthew 4:2-4)
Despite being “famished,” Jesus recognizes Satan’s not-so-subtle taunt that God provided the hungry, disgruntled, wandering Israelites with manna, the "bread from heaven," in the desert (Exodus 16:4). Surely, he sneers, the Son of God can do likewise! But our suffering Savior deftly returns the volley by quoting Moses, who spoke a warning to the Israelites as they stood at the threshold to the Promised Land. Remember…one does not live by bread alone… (Deut. 8:3)
In other words, in our fullness, in our prosperity, in our provision, in our earthly previews of the “Promised Land,” we mustn’t neglect the words of our God. We must read them, know them, memorize them, and engrave them on our hearts if we're to be spiritually fed and fully alive in Christ; that is, alive not by bread alone but by the knowledge and wisdom God speaks to his children as a loving Father who longs to guide and sustain us as we press toward the one, true Promised Land. St. Augustine of Hippo (a loose-living, late-in-life convert to Christianity) said that the Holy Scriptures are our letters from home. I really like the thought of that, don't you?
With that in mind, maybe there’s a weekly Bible study group that would love to welcome you. Maybe you’ll sign up for the Bible-In-A-Year reading program or podcast (it just started). Maybe ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes at night spent reading the Gospel of Mark (short and sweet!) will jumpstart new habits, understanding, and graces in your life. Nourishment, strength, and right relationship with the Lord come from reading, studying, and interpreting the whole of Sacred Scripture—and then listening for God to speak to our hearts. We're enlivened by our interaction with the Word because these are not dead letters written to a dead Church; we, the one Body of Christ, are a moving, breathing, supernatural Church animated by the Holy Spirit, under Whose inspiration this love story was recorded for our eternal benefit—and in the hope of salvation for the whole world!
With commitment and consistency, perhaps by the time the Lenten or other seasons of fasting come into view, our hunger and desire for bread will pale when compared to our hunger and desire for God. How pleased our Father would be if we were famished for more of him, Who is Love!
So…back to our sheep, who surely must live by hay alone because obviously they can’t read. Or can they?
I propose that they can. Because I know, love, and am filled with the Holy Spirit, I am, by God's grace, a reflection of the Good Shepherd and my sheep read me like a book. They read my body language, my expressions, my intentions, and my heart as I lavish them with buckets of hay and fresh water and all things for their nourishment, strength, and benefit. Turns out, sheep do not live by hay alone any more than we live by bread alone, for Love is always the sacred ingredient—on the farm, at Nonna’s table, in the Body of Christ, and throughout the Holy Scriptures.
There's a place waiting for you and for me at the table of God's word...
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”