“Tell me where the Bible talks about Lent,” she said to me, smugly crossing her arms in a perceived victory. “Because why should I do this Lent thing if the Bible doesn’t even mention it?”
And with that, she walked away. I am not a big fan of that debating technique and the more cynical side of me wanted to run after her and start asking her about her Christmas celebrations/traditions and where she finds support for those in the Bible, but that would have led us to a place that probably wasn’t very helpful.
Yet, she is correct. Lent is not something that Jesus practised or implemented but does that mean that we should have nothing to do with it? There is a long history of the early church observing various kinds of fasts in preparation for Good Friday and Easter – as early as the 2nd/3rd centuries. When Constantine legalised Christianity in AD 313, Lent became a formal part of the church’s rhythm. The word itself simply comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning Spring or March, referring to the time of year in which Lent most often takes place. Typically, it is a very reflective time, a time to take stock of the fragility of our humanity, our need for a Saviour, and the cost at which our saving came. The idea of fasting or depriving yourself of something during the ’40 days’ of Lent is a way of identifying or, at the very least, having a more profound understanding of the suffering that Christ went through on our behalf. It is a time in which we join Jesus in the wilderness, to be tested, tried, and readied for the road that is to come. A person will decide to “give something up” for the duration of Lent – from coffee, to video games, to Facebook – and use that time for reflection, meditation, prayer, etc..
I have been struck by the number of blogs, articles, and comments I have read this year that suggest that we need to get rid of this whole thing of “giving up something” for Lent. And its not just the people who feel Lent is “non-biblical” and therefore, not worth considering. Some of said that it feels trite to give up not eating sweets (for instance) as a way of identifying with the suffering of Christ. “Jesus died a brutal death for my sins and so I decide to not eat chocolate?” And, to be honest, I understand that perspective. How does my simple fast help me relate to what my Lord suffered for our sake? I think the closest I came was when I gave up coffee (& other caffeinated beverages) for 40 days. The headaches that came with withholding caffeine, cold-turkey, were suffering indeed. It might be fair to say that my wife suffered even more because she had to put up with me as I staggered around the house, hoping to breathe in a caffeine-fume, if such a thing exists. And don’t even talk to me about trying to pray while my head is pounding. But still, is it even fair to somehow equate that with Christ’s suffering? So the question of the effectiveness of fasting, amidst all our excess, is a valid one.
But when it comes down to it, that is the point, isn’t it? Isn’t the point that we live in a society in which we don’t hold back anything from ourselves? We want for nothing, living in such abundance that we never have to go without. Largely, we are a very undisciplined people. Never mind my ‘needs,’ I find it hard to think of something that I ‘want’ that I don’t already have. Of course, if I dream, there are big, extravagantly expensive things that I can say I ‘want;’ things that when it comes right down to it, I would never buy even if I could. But the reality is that when I think “that would be nice to have,” that usually means I will go out and get it; if not immediately, then a few days/weeks down the road (such discipline!). I don’t think that is what the Psalmist meant when writing “The Lord is my Shepherd, I will not be in want…”
Living in a culture in which we withhold nothing from our selves has brought me to this point where I look at the season of Lent and it makes sense to me. Yes, withholding desserts is trite and in no way representative of the Passion of Christ, but it seems to me that the path to a disciplined life needs to start somewhere. We’ve got the excess thing down; let’s start withholding from ourselves. We need habits in our lives by which we deprive our flesh in order to free the work of the Spirit. Because we need the Spirit to be active in our lives so that we can understand what Jesus means when he says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8.34).
So what are you giving up for Lent? I pray it will help you better understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and create room for the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. And to my anti-Lent friend, it seems to me that Lent has more of a Biblical foundation than does the gluttony of gifts that you buy at Christmas time…but that’s an argument for a few months down the road.