Lent is a period of 40 days before the Easter celebration, in which the church traditionally fasts in remembrance and reflection of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. The central images of the season are the desert, dust, and ashes, as Christians remember their mortality, sinful nature, and dependence on God. Though it is a darker season than Advent, it is a journey that has a bright destination: the Easter feast that celebrates Christ’s resurrection, and humanity’s salvation from death and sin.
I’ve never understood fasting. I easily get light-headed from hunger, I see food as an important factor in relationships, and not eating means not dancing, so fasting doesn’t add up in most cases. But Lent is just that: a season of fasting, created for the act of fasting. And suddenly I’m thrust into a practice of the church that humbles me and challenges me, and Lent becomes a season of change.
Over the past few years, as my interest in the church calendar has increased, I have dabbled in Lenten practices—praying the divine hours three times a day, fasting from a particular habit, contemplating pieces of art—but I’ve failed a full commitment to the season. There are many resources that can help you define goals for Lent, but those will only take you so far. Here’s what I’ve learned in my few years of thinking about—and attempting—Lent.
Lent is meant to be practiced in community.
I can’t tell you what a relief it is to my liturgically-drawn soul to be in a church community this year that is digging deep into Lent. I’m already anticipating the altered sanctuary as the colors change from green to purple, the focus on lamentation and confession, and the imposition of ashes that will take place tomorrow night.
Even if you’re not in a church that practices the season of Lent, find fellow believers that share in your desire to walk through this time of fasting and confession with you. Not only do you need people to be praying for you and encouraging you on your journey, but you need a community of believers to discover together both the darkness and the beauty of this season. I tried doing it alone in the past, and regret it.
Lent requires a plan.
And “not eating any chocolate” isn’t it. I’ve realized through trial and error that if my Lenten sacrifices are merely a dieting plan to lose those last five pounds, then I’ve made it into a season that supports my own desires, rather than one that recognizes the power of self-denial.
The Book of Common Prayer invites believers into the three common practices of Lent: “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.” Health is the goal of Lent, but not a shallow health that is merely concerned with the physical—a spiritual health, which is closely connected to our physical state, is the aim.
Lent is supposed to make us uncomfortable.
The early church practiced a fast a few days before Easter to mourn the crucifixion of Christ before celebrating the Resurrection. Over time, this extended to a forty day fast—an obvious reflection on other forty day fasts in the Bible, but particularly a remembrance of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. If you think about Christ’s own fasting and temptation in the desert, and the challenges he faced there, Lent is a way for the church to participate in that. This wilderness of the soul, of facing our own demons, of discovering our inability to overcome and Christ’s power—these are the underlying assumptions of the season.
Have you ever wondered why fasting is particularly related to food? Because it is a common human need. Physical fasting is not to say that the body is not important, but fasting does reflect our spiritual need for God, just as we have a physical need for nutrition. More to come on this later, but as you consider how you might participate in this season, realize that the long-standing tradition in Scripture and the church of fasting from food has a particular value.
Here are some questions to reflect on as we begin this season:
- Do I have a community, large or small, that will walk through this season with me?
- Is there a fast that I can commit to in order to deepen my experience?
- (a day of fasting a week? a particular type of food? a certain meal?)
- Is there a habit that leads me away from Christ instead of towards, and needs to be broken?
- (this is where “fasting” from other items—social media, shopping, etc. comes in)
- In what ways can I deepen my prayer life during this season to practice self-examination and grow closer to God?