But, in the past fifteen years or so, I’ve sometimes decided to join my Catholic sisters and brothers in giving up something during Lent. This means, depending on how you count the days of Lent, fasting from something for about six weeks. (Officially in the Western world, Lent comprises the days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. But many traditions do not count the Sundays during this period as belonging to Lent. Thus Lent covers 46 days, but only 40 days belong to the Lenten fast.)
People in my theological tradition (the Reformed tradition, pioneered by John Calvin) tend not to emphasize Lenten fasting. Partly this had to do with the conscious rejection of Roman Catholic practices that were not clearly based on Scripture. Lent is not prohibited in Scripture. But it isn’t taught there either. One can be a faithful, biblical Christian and never recognize Lent. So, in days gone by, many Reformed folk and other Protestants who wanted to make the season before Easter special in some way, chose instead to add a spiritual discipline to their lives as a way of preparing for Easter. It’s quite common today for churches that don’t have midweek Bible studies, for example, to offer a Lenten Wednesday Evening Study or something like this. Special Lenten spiritual retreats are also increasingly common in Protestant in addition to Roman Catholic circles.
But fasting still plays a prominent role in Lenten practices of many Christians across the denominational and theological spectrum. Throughout church history there have been different kinds of Lenten fasts. Nobody, to my knowledge, expected anyone to give up all food for the whole season. In the Middle Ages it was common for Christians to give up certain sorts of food, like meat and/or dairy products, for example. This explains why, in my youth, Catholics abstained from meat on the Fridays of Lent. Many Catholics still observe this discipline. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Lenten fast is taken even more seriously than in the Roman Catholic church, with many Orthodox folk eating vegetarian meals during the season.
In recent years I have sometimes given up something in Lent, perhaps chocolate or watching television. The latter was particularly hard because I enjoy college basketball, and March Madness (the NCAA bastketball tournament) always falls in the middle of Lent. This year I have decided to give up something I enjoy. I’ve also adopted an additional daily spiritual discipline. It don’t think it would be appropriate for me to speak in detail about what I’m doing at this time. But I would like to share some reflections on what I’ve been learning through my version of a Lenten fast.
What I’ve Learned by Fasting During Lent
First, giving up something allows me to make a tangible sacrifice to the Lord. Although certain sacrifices are already present in my life, they’re sort of “built in” at this point. I don’t often experience giving up something for God on a daily basis. The act of sacrifice reminds me of my commitment to God and my desire to make him first in my life.
Second, by giving up something I usually enjoy on a daily basis, I have sometimes found myself yearning for that thing. Frankly, I’ve been tempted to give up my Lenten fast at times. I could easily argue that it’s unnecessary (it is optional, after all) and certainly not taught in Scripture. But, though I don’t think my effort at fasting makes God love or bless me more, I do think it raises my awareness of how much I depend on other things in life rather than the Lord. I see how easy it is for me to set up all sorts of little idols in my life. Fasting, in some way, helps me surrender my idols to God.
Third, when I give up something I like and then feel an unquenched desire for it, I’m reminded of my neediness as a person. And neediness, I believe, is at the heart of true spirituality. Jesus said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . .
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Matthew 5:3, 6
Of course feeling hungry for one of life’s pleasures isn’t quite the same as hungering and thirsting for righteousness. But when I feel my hunger, when I sense my neediness for some other thing, I can use this to get in touch with my hunger and need for God.
Fourth, as I continue with my Lenten fast, I find myself less eager for the thing I’ve given up. Ironically, this makes my fast easier. It’s almost something I can take for granted, thus dulling the spiritual impact of the fast. But I’m also gratified to know that one of my little “idols” is being set aside in my heart, as I learn to depend more upon God. I’m experiencing a bit of freedom that makes me gladly thankful for God’s grace at work in me.
Written by: by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts