I grew up hearing about Catholics fasting during the season of Lent. No meat on Fridays, only fish, which in my school cafeteria was something to be avoided at all costs. This always seemed to me to be one more good reason to be a Protestant. But, in the past fifteen years or so, I’ve sometimes decided to join my Catholic sisters and brothers in giving up something during the 40 days (46, including the Sundays) prior to Easter
People in my theological tradition (the Reformed tradition, pioneered by John Calvin) tend not to emphasize Lenten fasting. Partly this had to do with the conscious rejection of Roman Catholic practices that were not clearly based on Scripture. Many Reformed folk, and other Protestants, chose instead to add some spiritual discipline to their lives as a way of preparing for Easter. It’s quite common today for churches that don’t have midweek Bible studies, for example, to offer a Lenten Wednesday Evening Study or something like this. Special Lenten spiritual retreats are also increasingly common in Protestant and Roman Catholic circles.
Throughout church history there have been different kinds of Lenten fasts. Nobody, to my knowledge, expected anyone to give up all food for the whole season. In the Middle Ages it was common for Christians to give up certain sorts of food, like meat and/or dairy products, for example. Many Catholics still refrain from eating meat on the Fridays of Lent. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Lenten fast is taken even more seriously than in the Roman Catholic church, with many Orthodox folk eating vegetarian meals during the season.During the past fifteen years I have sometimes given up something in Lent, perhaps chocolate or watching television. The latter was particularly hard because I enjoy college basketball, and March Madness (the NCAA bastketball tournament) always falls in the middle of Lent. This year I decided to give up something I enjoy. It don’t think it would be appropriate for me to speak in detail about what I’m doing at this time. But I would like to share some reflections on what I experience by my version of a Lenten fast.
First, giving up something allows me to make a tangible sacrifice to the Lord. Although certain sacrifices are already present in my life, I don’t often experience giving up something for God on a daily basis. The act of sacrifice reminds me of my commitment to God and my desire to make Him first in my life.
Second, by giving up something I usually enjoy on a daily basis, I have sometimes found myself yearning for that thing. Frankly, I’ve been tempted to give up my Lenten fast at times. I could easily argue that it’s unnecessary (it is optional, after all) and certainly not taught in Scripture. But, though I don’t think my effort at fasting makes God love or bless me more, I do think it raises my awareness of how much I depend on other things in life rather than the Lord. I see how easy it is for me to set up all sorts of little idols in my life. Fasting, in some way, helps me to surrender my idols to God.
Third, when I give up something I like and then feel an unquenched desire for it, I’m reminded of my neediness as a person. And neediness, I believe, is at the heart of true spirituality. Jesus said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom
of heaven. . . .
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.”
Matthew 5:3, 6
Of course feeling hungry for one of life’s pleasures isn’t quite the same as hungering and thirsting for righteousness. But when I feel my hunger, when I sense my neediness for some other thing, I can use this to get in touch with my hunger and need for God.
Fourth, as I continue with my Lenten fast, I find myself less eager for the thing I’ve given up. Ironically, this makes my fast easier. It’s almost something I can take for granted, thus dulling the spiritual impact of the fast. But I’m also gratified to know that one of my little “idols” is being set aside in my heart, as I learn to depend more upon God. I’m experiencing a bit of freedom that makes me gladly thankful for God’s grace at work in me.
So, as we enter the season of Lent, I am grateful for the saints who have gone before me, who discovered the blessings of giving up something in Lent. I pray that God will use this season to draw me closer to Him, and to prepare me for a fresh experience of Good Friday and Easter. May God’s peace be with You!