by Nabil Habiby
We are in the early days of Lent. Fish burger ads have started to fill the streets. Christians all over Lebanon fast until 12:00 noon. Most abstain from all meat and chicken products.
Lent is supposed to be a time of letting go. It is a time when we take our hands off this life, and place them wide open as we call for God to come and fill us anew. Lent is a time when we not only remember that we are weak, dust, but when we embrace this weakness.
However, two instances leading up to Lent in the past month have greatly unsettled me:
The first incident happened about a month ago. Lebanese social media went crazy with pictures of travelers sleeping in the Lebanese international airport chapel. A sample of the general Christian outrage can be found in the announcement of the Catholic Centre for Media in Lebanon who said that they rejected this state of affairs, arguing that this is a “violation of a holy place which insults the feelings of Christians.” They then asked the administration in charge to make sure that this does not happen again.
Many Lebanese Christians on social media also heavily criticized this phenomenon. It seems that (1) everyone assumed those sleeping are Muslims (is it perhaps because they do not look as “tidy” as the Christians?), and (2) everyone assumed that they mean this act of sleeping in the chapel as an insult towards Christianity.
Let us assume for a moment that those two assumptions are correct. These travelers were Muslims. They slept in the church on purpose as a sign of defiance and mockery of the holy place. The words of Jesus come to mind here. It would do us well to listen to him when we seek wisdom as a church. Us being Christians and all. Jesus was quite clear in asking us to return evil with good. His message was simple: fight hatred with love.
Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate if the Catholic Centre for Media, and other official Christian institutions, had issued a call for Christian travelers to pass by the chapel and pray? Hence, when these supposed abusers of the place come by to sleep, they see the proper use of the place and refrain from their actions. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the church authorities placed blankets in the church so that weary travelers can find a warm place to sleep? Wouldn’t it be mind-blowing if Christian travelers passed by the airport chapel to share snacks, food, and a loving conversation with the weary sleepers?
A second incident, a recurring conversation more than an event, hit us again a couple of weeks ago. A Lebanese minister raised the issue of civil marriage. You see, all marriages in Lebanon must fall under the sectarian law of the sect you belong to. Evangelicals are married by an Evangelical priest. Maronites by a Maronite one, and so on and so forth. Predictably, most church authorities spoke up, rather vehemently, against the opening of a second way to marriage: that of civil marriage.
Much can be said in defense and support of civil marriage in Lebanon. This is not the place for it. However, the most important argument remains that, simply put, civil marriage gives freedom to those who do not wish to get married under God (or pay money to those claiming to serve God) to get married in a civil setting.
What is in common between both incidents? In both, the church seeks to hold on to power.
What use, then, is our Lent? How can we empty ourselves of this world when we want to build walls around our churches to keep the Muslims out? How can we empty ourselves of this world when we want every single person who is born a Christian to be forced to get married inside a church, by us?
What use is our Lent?
In a well-known and amply-quoted passage in Isiah 58:6-12, the writer sets out the kind of fast acceptable to God. It involves sharing what we have with those who have less and freeing the oppressed.
We are in the early days of Lent. But alas, we fast and pray for a God who stands with the oppressed, but we as a church, in more ways than one, are the oppressors today.
Empty us, Lord. Empty us from power. We do not want to sit at your right and your left. We want to carry your cross.
Kill us, Lord. We are drunk with power. Stifle our power-filled breath, so that come Easter we may truly rise with you into the newness of life, a life of love towards God and others.
As the prophet declares:
“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
14 then you will find your joy in the Lord,
and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob” (Isaiah 58: 1-14, NIV).