Lent has begun.
I know because my Facebook feed and my inbox are both studded with ideas on how to keep Lent this year.
Do a kind deed every day. Give up sugar.
Call me a cynic but I’m feeling frustrated.
Lent has been relaunched recently in the Protestant church. I actually love the idea, and have really enjoyed using it over the last few years to prepare my heart and mind for Easter.
But I can’t help feeling that the general approach to lent is a bit wide of the mark.
Lent is not found in the Bible anywhere. Nor is Easter or Christmas for that matter. I love these celebrations, and find them key anchors for my faith through the year, times when I particularly focus my thoughts and prayers on Jesus and his immense love for us. Yet the Protestant in me always remembers that these things are man made, and while they may be beneficial they are not mandatory. Let them serve our faith, not enslave us.
My second, and bigger bugbear, is the question of how we keep Lent.
Traditionally it was a period of fasting, when rich foods were rejected, and Christians took time to consider their mortality, and the cost of their sins. It was a time to remember the sufferings of Christ, and join him in them by giving up luxuries and spending additional time in prayer.
Perhaps the problem is that the Western church has let go of fasting as a habit, and doesn’t really understand what it means.
For a long time I thought of fasting as pretty much raising my voice in prayer. Holy shouting. It was like me saying, “God, look how much I care about this. Now you have to listen to me.”
I was wrong. Fasting is not a spiritual loudhailer, a holy lever to put added pressure on God to act. God will act in his own time and in his own way. Our prayers are means to his ends.
So what is fasting for then?
Fasting is for us. It is a servant. When we fast, we are meant to give up things that distract us from pursuing God. Historically, preparing food was time consuming. It would take up most of the housewife’s time, to grind grain, sift flour, knead bread, set it to rise, and then bake it. To take a day off from preparing food would free up a great deal of time for her to kneel and meet with God.
Fasting reminds us of our dependence on God. I’ve tried once or twice to go a day without food, and by 10 a.m. I’m regretting my decision. I’m hungry, I’m irritable, and craving something, anything to take away the hunger.
I’ve often been baffled by the story of the temptation of Jesus, and how he survived for forty days in wilderness. A similar story exists about Elijah, who travelled for miles at a great pace, for forty days. God’s Spirit sustained him. And Jesus tells Satan, “Man shall not live by bread alone”.
Our lives are a gift from God. He can sustain us without food, if it pleases him. Food, in the end, is a signpost of our real need, our true hunger. Am I hungry for God in the way that I am hungry for food? If I miss my morning prayer time, do I feel it? Do I miss God when I go hours or days without prayer?
Fasting encourages us to ask these questions.
I am considering how I will prepare for Easter this year. I love Lent. I love the period of forty days to prepare my soul to celebrate it’s liberation.
But I will not give up chocolate. This seems to completely miss the point of lent, of fasting. Giving up chocolate is a pretty self-centred thing to do. It almost always springs from a desire to cut calories and conform myself to the idols of this age. The whole purpose of fasting is to take our eyes off ourselves and fix them more firmly on Jesus. It is to give something up, something necessary, something precious, to free up space in my life for Jesus.
Maybe I will give up social media. Or TV. Or one of the multitudinous outlets for entertainment that clutter up our lives.
How will my soul be by Easter if I spent an hour with God instead of watching TV every night?
How will my soul feel by Easter if I spent my morning lie-in reading the Gospel of John and praying, instead of sleeping?
One final point, which I completely attribute to Edith Schaeffer. However you spent lent, whatever you choose to fast, do not let it be a slave. Edith writes in her book, ‘The Life of Prayer’, that when they held a fast day in L’Abri, she always ensured there was a light meal laid out in the dining hall so that those who were distracted by hunger could be refreshed and then return to prayer. The point is not to starve ourselves abstractly, but to give up the distraction of preparing food and eating to give the time more fully to Jesus. This is pointless if all we can think about is burgers. Better to eat simply, perhaps just on toast or soup, and pray with a clear head, than to complete a religious exercise only to give yourself mental brownie points.
Whatever you do this Lent, whether you keep it at all, I pray that your soul will feast on Jesus, and be refreshed.