(The first of seven weekly Lenten reflections.) I had an interesting albeit brief conversation yesterday, one that reminded me of similar conversations in the past. At root was the question, why observe Lent?
It’s true that if one were to judge by surface appearances, many people seem to observe Lent as a unreflective religious reflex. The question may get tossed around almost flippantly: “So–what are you giving up for Lent?” The answers, of course, vary tremendously from person to person. Sometimes we turn it into a contest. Sometimes we even joke about it: “I’m giving up Brussels sprouts.” Right.
Even so, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t perfectly good reasons to observe some kind of fast, not as a religious requirement, but as a spiritual discipline. I won’t pretend to have the definitive answers on the subject; I can only tell you why I do it.
But first, in case it needs to be said–Lent is not “a Catholic thing.” Its observance predates the Reformation, and today, Christians from a wide variety of Protestant traditions observe Lent in different ways. On the liturgical calendar, it’s meant to be a forty-day season of penitence and preparation for the passion and resurrection of Christ. The forty days are an allusion to Jesus’ wilderness temptation; Sabbath days are not counted, in order to highlight their significance as anticipations of the resurrection.
That’s the background. So, what am I giving up for Lent? Basically, white flour and white sugar. That’s the what. The why is more complicated.
It begins with this: have you ever thought of how ubiquitous those two substances are in the American diet? They’re everywhere. In our office building, someone often sets out treats near the reception desk for everyone to enjoy. What constitutes a treat? Usually, something with white flour and white sugar.
What do we bring to share for Sunday School? White flour and white sugar. Together with caffeine, these have become the basic food groups of church life. Imagine what people would think if someone brought a veggie platter when donuts were expected.
No, I’m not a health nut. I don’t go to the gym a billion times a week (well, OK–these days I hardly go at all); I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian nor pescetarian (more Baptist, actually); and I don’t particularly care for alfalfa sprouts. I do love tofu, but hey, I grew up with the stuff.
It’s just that healthwise I know better: I’ve read what white flour and white sugar can do to me. But then I see a plate of cookies and happily load up. Let me put it plainly: when it comes to certain foods, I have a conscience, and routinely ignore it. Just one more. I’ll be good later.
Lent is an opportunity–if you like, an excuse–to discipline myself in at least one area of life, to practice self-denial in a way that matters, in a way that takes effort and costs me something. It reminds me that I live in a culture that preaches a different gospel: Life is about satisfying your hunger for pleasure, to be full and therefore happy, to have ready and endless access to anything that tickles your fancy. Have what you want, when you want it. Life’s short; eat dessert first.
If that’s our default modus operandi as we walk through this world, then with what mindset will we come to Easter?
And there is good that comes directly out of the discipline itself. Yes, there are moments in which even this small bit of self-abnegation feels like a nuisance or a punishment. I begin to reach for a sweet something-or-other and suddenly think, Wait, I’m not supposed to eat that. Rats! But soon, that becomes: You know what? I don’t have to eat that. I can make the right choice instead. And I’m actually OK with that.
And when that happens, even the Sabbath becomes sweeter (no pun intended). Sabbath days are traditionally exceptions to Lenten self-denial. Here’s what I’ve found: if fasting hasn’t formed my spirit properly, then Sunday becomes a day to recklessly indulge in all the things I’ve barely managed to deny myself the other six days. Yee ha! Keep those brownies coming! But often, what happens instead is that when Sabbath comes, I’m actually able to enjoy the sweetness of a treat, without thoughtlessly gobbling it down or having to go back for seconds and thirds.
To tell you the truth, I go back and read what I’ve just written, and it reeks of a taken-for-granted privileged lifestyle. I’m too used to having what I want, to never letting myself be hungry for anything.
Not even for resurrection.
I’d better start somewhere.