Lent is here again. It creeps up on us every year between Christmas and Easter and stays with us for a little more than a month. It is a season in the calendar year for traditional Christians. In our pluralistic society, we can choose to observe it, ignore it, or know nothing about it. We give up something or we don’t. Or we say we will, and we don’t make it through the season with our good intentions. Or we decide to take on a good work, something to make a better world. Or we do nothing.
I have known about Lent for a long time. As a child, I saw it as a time to give up something I cared about. I didn’t know why. In my early adult years I didn’t care about it. Later in my life the light bulb went on and I came to some understanding of it. The Church taught me that Lent was a time to prepare for Easter. Ok. This is a concept that involves not thinking about rabbits and colored eggs, but rather a time to go without something in order to be ready for the Resurrection. It’s like fasting before the feast.
None of this makes sense without some inkling about fasting. I don’t hear much about fasting in today’s affluent society, either from the Church or American culture. Fasting has a purpose and a history. It’s there in the Old Testament. Jesus did it. He went out into the wilderness, and Matthew tells us that he deliberately fasted before his temptation and the start of his public ministry. The Oxford Companion to the Bible says, “Fasting in connection with prayer, penance, and preparation for new ventures has been practiced from early times in many cultures and religions….normally it involved abstinence from all food to show dependence of God and submission to his will.” Huh? Even in church I’m not hearing much about that.
Historically, the approximately forty days of Lent are days of fasting, either partial or entire, so that we can take part in the new annual adventure of the Resurrection. Lent has come down through the ages with a set of rules. Somewhere along the line, Lent became regulated. It’s there on the Internet, at Catholicism.about.com. Just point your search engine to “Lent season.” Everything is online, even rules for Lent. The website hits us with a list of questions that tell people how to “do” Lent if they are Roman Catholics. First it tells us, “Lent is the season of penance and prayer before Easter.” Then it proceeds with a FAQ about Lent, with questions about liturgy, diet and whether to fast on Sundays. Since I am an Episcopalian, and we also observe Lent, all these rules are optional and, to me, stultifying. The Why question is still there.
Here is my answer to the Why question. In today’s affluent culture, giving up something for Lent is a good exercise for us, for the planet and for God. We spend our lives in dietary and other kinds of gluttony, eating a lot and taking advantage of the many things around us. We fill our stomachs with junk food. We fill our landfills with waste. We fill our lives with possessions. We can live another way, even a little bit for a month. My son gave up Facebook for Lent. I gave up complaining, which is almost impossible for me to accomplish. I also gave up some kinds of food. The point is to impose some discipline into our busy, thing filled lives, so that we can go through our month and come out at the end a little bit more appreciative of the plenteousness around us, and unclutter ourselves to make us ready to share in the love of the resurrected Christ.