Fast to Feast: thoughts on observing Lent

Sunday, March 04, 2012

What Lent means, literally.
It seems like many people are doing Lent this year – or at least more are posting about it on Facebook. This will be the first year I’ve participated in the fast (no TV for me!) and as such I’ve decided to do a bit of research and thinking about it, especially regarding the benefits of observing Lent and the best way to go about it.

But before we get to this, I must share the first question that naturally came to mind when I started my musings: “What does Lent mean?” I asked. I don’t mean “What is it all about?” or even “What does it mean to me, personally?” But literally, what does the word lent mean? I’m curious, you know? (And I’m married to a linguist, so this kind of question is to be expected).

I let my brain do some of its own internal research as I lay in bed “falling asleep” the eve before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent). It ran something like this: “Lent? Perhaps its related to the word relent, as in “a period of relenting from sin”? Or maybe the past tense verb lent, like “I am giving back that which I’ve been lent from God”? No wait – it’s clearly Latin because the origins of Lent lie in Medieval Catholicism. Despite my almost non-existent Latin, verses from Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” spring to mind: “O lente, lente currite noctis equi!” or “O, run slowly, slowly, horses of the night!” Slowly? Really?

Actually, a quick trip to the Oxford English Dictionary makes me somewhat embarrassed to call myself a medievalist. Lent is not a Latin word in this case – but Middle English. Lent, from lenten, refers to the season of Spring and may derive from the Old English lencten, meaning to lengthen (i.e. Spring is the season in which the days lengthen). I guess I should have checked Chaucer before Marlowe.

All right then, lent means spring. Moving on…

What Lent means, practically.
Lent is the forty day period prior to Easter (excluding Sundays) during which Catholic and a number of Protestant denominations engage in fasting. In the Middle Ages, Lent functioned as a counterpoint to something we might call the carnival impulse – that practice of delighting in the flesh (carne), which of course we all do in some form or another. For the medievals, Lent usually involved fasting from meat and other rich foods, those luxuries which the body enjoys. However, what Lent was really meant to signify through such a fast was a rejection of the bodily corruption indulged in during the feasts and other carnival-esque activities and excess. For them, Lent’s significance was intended to be spiritual, and the Lenten fast was meant to counter the damning effects of the carnival impulse and help make one right with God again.

Now, not all Christians observe Lent (growing up, it was never something I was aware of in any of the churches I attended). And many have stayed away from the Lenten fast citing the danger of falling into a works mentality or mere ritual. Certainly for the medievals, not all was right; while many likely participated in Lent because of an awareness of sin, there existed the danger of viewing it as a convenient way to compensate for the carnival impulses, without intending to renounce and turn from the sin. Back then, as today, I am sure that some participated in genuine contrition and repentance, while others, as is so easy to do, would have found it a useful means to ease a guilty conscience and procure insurance for the sin which they knew would damn them, but had no intention of turning from because it was so enjoyable. In the latter case, the spiritual significance of Lent gets turned on its head, for its main goal is to be free the rest of the year to cater to the desires of the carne and indulge oneself in sin.

Today, I think Lent is often de-spiritualized in a different way. It can be less about compensating for sin, and instead becomes an opportunity to exercise our human will, a moment of self-discipline meant to aid us in experiencing the kind of purification found in self-denial. It’s a chance to prove to ourselves that we can abstain from Facebook for a month and a half. Or it’s a chance to experience the health benefits of avoiding sugar. These are not bad motives, but I can’t help but feel they miss out on the best!

What Lent can mean.
What is the best? The Bible says that it is to “glorify God” in whatever I eat, drink or do, including the act of abstaining from these things (1st Cor.10:31). The Psalmist puts forward this sole vision for his life: “one thing I have asked from the Lord, that I will seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4). John Piper sums it up with a reference back to the Westminster Catechism: “the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.” So how might I use Lent to glorify God by enjoying Him? How might I return to the spiritual meaning of Lent, without falling into the traps of works-based righteousness or attempted bargaining with God or mere ritual? Here are two things that I’ve come up with:

First, consider carefully what to fast from:

Think about fasting from something that distracts you from God. Do you spend 30 minutes a day checking Facebook photos? Or 45 minutes watching an episode of The Mentalist? Or 2 hours listening to music during your commute? Or 16 hours a day accessing the convenience of your iphone? None of these are sin – many are good! – but they can take time away from communing with and hearing from God. Consider such a fast.

Or something that you enjoy…maybe even a teensy bit more than you enjoy God? The point is not to say that chocolate, meat or shopping are evil. But might a time away from these things make us more aware of these things as blessings from God’s hand? Might a time away from these things demonstrate that we are serious about first cultivating our enjoyment of God? Consider such a fast.

Or something that offers an area of temptation for you. I don’t mean sin – we should be striving to permanently fast from sin and shouldn’t give ourselves the option of sinning the rest of the year if we can but manage to abstain for forty days. But think about places or activities or even people which seem to make it a greater challenge for you to keep from sinning. They prove a special weakness for you at this point in your life in terms of falling into sin. Are there things that God has been whispering that you should give up in wisdom, and you’ve been ignoring Him because you think you can do the dance and avoid falling down? Might a time away be spiritually wise? Consider such a fast.

Second, consider carefully why you are fasting:

Fasting in the Bible is often used to express our sorrow over something (2nd Samuel 1:11-12, Neh.1:3-7). For the medievals, Lent was meant to be a time of mourning over sin, a time of repentance, a time of penitence. Christians are called to regularly confess our sin to God so as to keep fellowship with Him and actively engage in His work of freeing us from the power of sin in our lives(1st John 1:5-9). Lent can be a yearly opportunity, a season built into our calendar, to humble ourselves, confess our sin, meditate on God’s holiness and our sinfulness, be convicted of these, and genuinely repent (that is, seek to turn from sin, not just store up “good points” in an attempt to outweigh our sin). Use the Lenten fast to declare to God that you are serious about His desire that you walk in holiness. Use the Lenten fast to physically support your mental decision to turn from sin, and to physically fuel your heart’s resolve to do so.

Fasting enables us to become more aware of our weakness, need, and selfishness, and to realize our dependency on God (Ps. 109:21-24). Have you ever fasted from food before? (Please don’t try this for forty days!) I tell you, the moment you lapse in judgment and walk into your college’s dining hall and smell those delectable fibs (“fake ribs”), you experience a monumental flood of desire: you are overwhelmed with how hungry and weak you are feeling, how much you want food, and just to what extent you might go to provide for yourself. You realize how much time and effort you usually spend during the day satisfying yourself and caring for yourself so that you don’t need to feel this way. And, if you allow your thoughts to go there, you realize that this is just a small picture, a tangible experience, of your deep spiritual need. Use Lent to re-sharpen your sensitivity to your great need for God. Use Lent to re-awaken you to an awareness of what stuff you are made of and what is in you.

Fasting is used to cultivate Godly self-discipline. Here we can engage in the Spirit’s work of producing self-control within us (Gal.5:22-25). Here we have a tangible opportunity to submit to God’s sanctifying work in us by learning to die to self. I believe that if we are in the habit of restraining our desire for good things, we will have a better time restraining our desires for evil things. Use Lent to strengthen your self-control and to weaken the habit of surrendering to self’s priorities instead of God’s.

Lent: fast to feast.
Until now, any of the last three points could be modified to leave God out of the picture – you could fast as a way of mourning, or fast to remind yourself of your weakness, or fast to exercise your self-discipline. This last point then is crucial. In the Bible, fasting is used to open up a space, a silence, an opportunity to meet with God. It is a way to return to Him (Joel 2:12-13).

Human beings are never vacuums or voids. We are always filled with something. If I remove dessert from my diet, I will replace it with something – salad hopefully, whining possibly, but certainly another activity during the time in which I would have eaten dessert. If I fast from Facebook, I may use that time to invest in youtube. If I stop listening to music while I clean the dishes, I will still listen to something – perhaps silence, or my own thoughts, or the sound of construction next door. What if during the 10 minutes I’d normally spend having dessert and coffee, I found a quiet place and thanked God for his grace to me? What if I took my 30 minutes of Facebook time and used them to read God’s word and pray, communing with Him and interceding for others? What if I filled the music-less silence with meditating on Scripture that I had memorized and asking God to speak with me? Consider how I would be trading the good for the best! Imagine how I would be enjoying God, experiencing His presence, growing in His holiness, rejoicing in His grace! Think about how this would honour Him, how it would declare “Your love is better than life!” (Ps.63:3), how it would bring Him glory!

You see, we have returned to the best. We have abstained from good things in order that we might gain something greater. We have fasted that we might feast. Use Lent to spend more time communing with God in the Word and in prayer (Dan.9:2-4). Use Lent to not only fast from something, but also to take that newly opened space and use it to return to God. Fast from the good in order to feast on the best.

What Lent means, to the glory of God.
Lent leads up to Easter, to the celebration of that most central event in all of history – that moment when God broke the power of sin and death over us, that place where His love and justice met in the humiliated and broken body of the Holy Man, that victory in which God purchased a people for Himself that they might enjoy Him forever and in doing so, glorify Him. This is the moment we celebrate at Easter – and this is the climax to which Lent leads. We break our fast with a celebration of the Gospel. And what a wonderful way to prepare ourselves to celebrate what our God has accomplished! What an opportunity to humble ourselves in surrender to God, to view ourselves and our sin as they truly are, to declare that we are serious about Him, to actively participate in His progressive transformation of our lives to holiness, and to experience that for which He saved us, namely to spend time with Him, to know Him, to love Him, to enjoy Him, to glorify Him.

This Lent, I’ve given up watching TV; it’s an area of temptation for me which rivals my time and affections for God. But I’ve also replaced it with something. Each week I meditate on a single Psalm and I have committed time every day to read the Psalm, memorize part of it, meditate on it and talk with God over it. I have missed a few days, but when I do I resolve to stick with it, moving past the failure by trusting God to help me choose His best one day at a time, knowing that He saved me for such a purpose.

Are you participating in Lent this year? What are you fasting from? What are you feasting on? O that we will fast in order to really and truly feast!


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