Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and ends on Maundy Thursday evening. It begins with the grim but honest ashes, smeared across our foreheads as a solemn reminder of our limits and Christ’s call to transformation. Lent’s forty days are for remembering and becoming what our baptism made us to be. Lent is a thoroughly personal time, but it is not individual. Lent is personal only because we are members of the body of Christ. It is in Christ that the church embraces and is embraced by Lent.
Such a season means that the community, in the person of all its members, puts aside much of the business that usually occupies it. We cannot keep Lent unless it has its own space, free as possible from the usual round of activities. Check your church calendar to see if perhaps the reason your church doesn’t observe a good Lent is that you insist on doing business as if it were the most important thing about being the church.
Lent needs to be set free from the usual round of affairs; from business as usual. Why? Because Lent is for hearing and pondering the scriptures that hold us to the shape and meaning of our baptism. Lent should be free for the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. These disciplines provide today, as they have for centuries, the means by which Christians endeavor to subdue all the things in their lives that they renounced at baptism, and grow into the things they affirmed. A good place to begin is to read again the renunciations and affirmations that are in the baptismal liturgy, and then, using those disciplines, use the Lenten season to focus on making those things a reality in your life.
One of the disciplines of Lent is fasting. It is also probably the most misunderstood. Can the words and gestures of the Christian faith - things like ashes, stories of wilderness and transfiguration, suffering, resurrection; prayer, forgiveness and the sacraments - can any of these find a place in a life that is already stuffed full? Not likely. The discipline of fasting is a outward, physical reminder of the reality of our situation: that we are empty before God. We have and are nothing that God does not first give us. As the old hymn says, “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.” (“Rock of Ages,Cleft for Me”) Jesus assured us that it is only those who know that they are destitute in spirit who are able to be filled. (St. Matthew 5:3). Of course, if you are already filled with everything the world offers you, there is no room for God! Fasting helps us to get in touch with reality; with our spiritual poverty. Admitting this emptiness before God enables God to then fill us with Godself.
Fasting helps us to discover and understand our hunger. In this culture we are not supposed to have any emptiness or hunger that should not be immediately filled. Every moment is to be stuffed full, every need must be satisfied. It is our right! Is it any wonder that people say they have no time (room) for God? Fasting puts us in touch with our real need, our true poverty and the God who can fill, fulfill and complete us.
Fasting is primarily rooted in experiencing hunger for food, but it goes beyond this. We fast so that so that we might discover what we truly need. That is why we revisit our baptism in Lent - to remind ourselves who we really are, whose image we, in fact, bear and what about life and its meaning are true.
The things from which we fast in Lent - our tradition shows us Christians fasting from such things as food, drink, particular foods, and sexual relations - all of these are good things in themselves. But by fasting from them we discover their true meaning and goodness and so find a life-giving gratitude for such gifts.
The tradition also knows Lent as a time when we take a hard look at all we consume, and that consumes us, so that we may begin to practice discipline in areas where we need to do battle against the sins of avarice and gluttony. One of the venerable traditions connected with the fast is to contribute the money otherwise spent on meals or food for ourselves, or other items that the culture has convinced us will give us the good life, to those who are in actual poverty. In this way fasting become an act of justice and in some ways, of environmental concern. Think of how your fast might be way of caring for the health of the creation. Fasting simplifies our lives, frees us from the consumerist demon and shows us what a just world would look like. What is more, fasting is a demonstration that we have been set free from the control of our desires and passions. We fast because Christ has set us free from the misuse of God’s good gifts and set us on the path of using them with propriety and gratitude. Far from being negative thing, fasting is a proclamation of the victory of Christ over sin and death.
More could be said on the subject of fasting, but this will do for now. Leave behind all the childish and silly things that so many people think about fasting. Its not about dieting. Its not about cleansing your body from poisons. (That is why you have a liver.) Use fasting for what is: a means by which we can discern and drive out the evil renounced in our baptism and be filled by the grace and new life Christ has brought us through his death and resurrection.