Feasting and Fasting

Palms and CrossIn my former life, I taught Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises at an evangelical college every year. I always struggled a bit when we arrived at the section describing the Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona, since most of my students (like most American Protestants) hadn’t really ever encountered the idea of a long, celebratory festival that also had religious significance. Neither had I, as a young evangelical—I didn’t observe Lent at all, nor had I experienced my first Holy Week until I became an Episcopalian in 2004. It was a revelation to me—to enter, imaginatively, into the story of the Passion through heightened symbolism, through chant and liturgy, through all the significant religious drama that Holy Week entails, helped me experience the Scriptures I knew so well in novel and meaningful ways.

I now serve at a school in Louisiana in which, perhaps more than any other place in the country, feasting has a rich history and an exalted place—after all, we take the entire week off for Mardi Gras—but our struggle is to maintain focus on the spiritual significance of our feasting and to take our fasting seriously.

We have great opportunities in Episcopal schools to demonstrate, and hopefully embody in specific practices, the oscillation between feasting and fasting that is built into the Church calendar, with the ultimate aim of showing our students that they need not be bound to chronos, the time of industry, the time of the machine, but they can live in that alternative time, kairos, God’s time.

In kairos we fast, setting ourselves apart from a world in which food is overabundant, showing solidarity with those who do not have enough. In kairos we also feast, setting ourselves apart from a world in which drudgery and toil leave no room for true joy. As Madeline L’Engle writes, kairos is “that time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards…in kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we’re constantly checking our watches for chronological time.”

The struggle, of course, in a school setting, is that we are constantly checking our watches, both literally and metaphorically (must finish Chapel on time so that the next period can begin on time, after all!). We straddle the worlds of kairos and chronos in Episcopal schools, one foot set toward Eternity while the other foot must concern itself with assessment, evaluation, the inexorable march of the syllabus.

And this is right and good—we owe our students and families a complete and full educational experience, after all—but Holy Week, in particular, can take us out of the ordinary and push us all toward the kind of transformational vision we hope for, in ourselves, and our students. I pray that your Holy Week is a blessed and transcendent escape from the chronos of the school calendar.

Andrew D. Armond, Ph.D., is chaplain at the Episcopal School of Acadiana, in Broussard, Louisiana.