In one of my classes a few weeks ago, we discussed Lent and how it should be viewed. My professor emphasized a very important concept: Lent is about acknowledging our sin and humanity and seeking a more fulfilling relationship with God.
So, while it may sound humble and happy to give up an easy thing for Lent, it is far better to quietly observe Lent with the knowledge that Christ acknowledges our observance as we spend more time with Him.
Lent, as described by the Anglican Catholic Church, is the forty days before Easter (not counting Sundays) when believers, mainly Catholics, engage in a fast. While early Christians took to the notion of fasting for whole days or abstaining from certain foods, such as animal products (Pope St. Gregory wrote, “We abstain from flesh, meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs.”), contemporary Lent-practicing Christians can be somewhat more liberal with their fasting.
Eusebius commented on the further dispute about how long the fasting should last when he quoted St. Irenæus, who said, “Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘day’ last forty hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers, who – apparently disregarding strict accuracy – in their naive simplicity kept up a practice which they fixed for the time to come.”
One of the things that I think Lent represents within the forty days is a symbolic link to Jesus’ fasting for forty days and forty nights in the desert. If we believe that we are to fast as Jesus fasted, then the focus of our fasting should be more on communion with God and less about restrictions or being a better person.
There has been an obvious and saddening shift from the original intent of practicing Lenten fasting. Although the original intent was to endure the suffering of Christ, now it seems as if people want to fast just to show that they can. And the true meaning of Lent – cultivating a closer relationship with Christ – is lost in a competition of who can avoid eating a certain food or drinking a certain drink the longest.
However, there is another part of Lenten fasting that I think is ignored more often than it is observed: the practice of spending more time with God. The purpose of fasting is, to a great extent, giving up time that you might spend communing with your food in order to have communion with God, engulfing yourself in His Word and embracing the Scripture to apply it to your own life.
Mass, for Catholics, is a required spiritual observance. Catholics can draw strength from weekly, even daily, attendance.
It is important that any observer of Lent, whether Catholic or Protestant, keep in mind that giving up one easy thing does not constitute a true Lenten fast.
What always gets to me is when people make a point of proclaiming that they are suffering for God by giving up something for Lent, much like the Pharisees (whom Christ rebuked, by the way). But are they really suffering for God, or are they just trying to show off the fact that they can “deny” themselves “in the name of Christ”?
I am in no way excluding myself from the list of those sinners who have trouble finding the true meaning of Lenten fasting. For example, this year, I gave up soda for Lent. I will admit that I chose giving up soda because it is a lot easier than giving up meat or something else that I truly love. Soda is easy to get rid of because it does not take much effort to drink water or juice. It is the ease of giving up soda that should, and has, made me question my motives and the motives of others who choose to engage in Lenten fasting.
To some degree, I gave up soda because there is a small satisfaction in knowing that I can accomplish something that others cannot. This mindset directly contradicts humility before Christ, and it is a mindset that I think our culture likes to uphold. We are competitive — always trying to be the best. But didn’t Christ also say in Matthew 20:16, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last”? (NIV)
Whenever I hear the word “Lent,” I always flinch a little on the inside. It is not because I do not approve of Lent, for I certainly admire those who practice it, but sometimes I think that people can get a little carried away and lose the true purpose of Lenten fasting.