Lent is a very important season in the Christian liturgical calendar. Spanning from Ash Wednesday until Easter, Lent is a time for penance, reflection, and fasting. Fasts are traditionally kept from the moment you recieve the ashes on your forehead until either Easter Sunday or until the ‘feast’ that Jesus held in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday (the night he was betrayed). Though Lent lasts six weeks, we usually speak of “The 40 Days of Lent” (which recalls Jesus’ time of temptation in the desert), since Sundays are often exempted from the fast. We also refrain from saying “Alleluia” in worship, as Lent is a time to “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark1:15, which is not uncommon to hear from the minister as they mark the sign of the Cross in ashes upon your forehead)
The Lenten fast is a popular practice for many Christians, but it is important to understand the purpose of a fast in order to experience Lent in all it’s troubling mystery. To fast from something is to give up something you need, not something you want (or shouldn’t have in the first place). Many churches, after all, cover up crosses and other elements of worship in their sanctuaries during Lent – and what could be a greater good than Jesus? For a lot of folks (including non-Christian fasts, like the Muslim month of Ramadan), fasting is from food, which is a good that our bodies need to survive. Voluntarily giving up a good is not so much about self-improvement per se as it is a way to better understand the very nature of our need, which for Christians, is ultimately God.
This is not to say that giving up a bad habit cannot be a good Lenten practice, it just isn’t a fast in its usual sense. I mention this because a professor of mine has rightly pointed out that for some, it would be good to give up chocolate for Lent (for chocolate is very good). But for other people in our highly cosmetic and individualistic culture, it would be better to give up giving up chocolate (for fasting has become starvation). Food is good for us – it is what we do with it that can be bad. The goodness of food has been distorted when we are lead into either obesity or anorexia nervosa. Whether you give up chocolate or give up giving up chocolate, Lenten fasts are about penitently refocusing our attention on God and trying to find where idols might be lying hidden in our lives.
Giving up a good helps us to see more clearly how we have made that good into an idol.
In the example of someone who suffers from anorexia, the good of their created body in all its beauty and dignity may have been abandoned for the idol of a tighter, more petite (or muscular) body that God frankly did not make for that person. For the example of someone who is obese, perhaps food has come to provide that which God alone can ultimately provide, instead of for simply bodily nourishment. (for this reason, the only possible “comfort food” is the body and blood of Jesus)
Or take sexual pleasure for example; sex having been created by God means that it is good, but it is also easily (and frequently) made an idol. Both pornography and (f)rigid chastity can skew the good that is sexual pleasure. As someone who has struggled with both, I think a compelling case can be made both for giving up pornography and for giving in to our healthy and well-moderated desire for physical intimacy with our significant other.
Fasting is not about giving up the bad things that Lent gives us reason to see, but about giving up the good things that we all too often have improperly made into idols. This brings me to my own Lenten practice this year; What good am I giving up this year, what might have become my own idol/s? Well, it begins with a story. One that I will pick up on in part 2… (so stay tuned!)