Just before the Parish Pot-Luck on Fat or Shrove Tuesday, Bartimaeus asked Ruth, “So, what are you giving up for Lent?”
“I don’t know yet,” Ruth replied, “I’m wavering between Facebook and chocolate—what about you?”
“Oh,” said Bartimaeus, “I’m thinking I might give up bedtime snacks, it might help me with my diet, and how bad can 40 days of it really be? And I’m considering being in Church every Sunday—that’s a lot of sermons, but hey, God’s worth it, right? Whatever it is, tonight I don’t have to worry about it—we’re here to have fun, right?”
“I’m eyeing the chocolate cake and popcorn, myself! Definitely a time for fun!”
Bartimaeus and Ruth were making plans, but I wonder if they’d really understood the point of the Lenten fast before doing it. In the modern era, fasting fell out of favor in the classic form (abstaining or significantly reducing our diets for an intentional period of time), so we shifted to “giving up,” or sometimes, “taking on…” In the Eastern Orthodox Christian world, and among some Catholic communities, dietary fasts are still the norm during Lent (if not daily, at least for Wednesdays and Fridays). In the Orthodox world a Holy Lent often includes fasting from meat, dairy and eggs—and it lasts almost two weeks longer than in the Western Church.
The season of Lent is one of the oldest in the Christian calendar, but it didn’t originate as a season of self-deprivation to focus on our personal connection with Jesus (not that that is a bad thing). Lent began as a time for catechumens, those candidates to be baptized at Easter, and those who were seeking to return to full participation in the Church after significant public sin, to focus on being ready to live a holy life and witness to the Gospel for the rest of their lives. Lent was a time of education, service, fasting and prayer—a time to become more Christian—and the disciplines were intended either to shape Christian living, or as with the fast, to help reduce distractions from that Christian shaping. Originally, those already Christian went about Lent much as they did the rest of the year—but in the Church at its best, when one member suffers, one celebrates, or one prays, all share together! In this way, the Lenten period of fasting and prayer became the norm for all Christians.
I am in favor of Lenten fasts—either dietary or otherwise. I’ve never kept a Lenten fast alone, and I think we are probably better off if we try to keep them in community. Very often, I think, our planning to “give up” or even “take on” something for Lent is often driven more by personal concerns than the needs, hopes, expectations or even awareness of the community. Also, we are far more likely to fail at keeping the fast precisely because it is deeply personal. I don’t want you advertising your fast, but you probably ought to find someone to share your time of fasting and prayer—if your fasts are different in their substance, you can still share your challenges with one another.
In the end, I’d challenge you, whatever Lenten discipline you have chosen already, or whatever discipline you might choose, to consider how it will help you better live a Christian life—not just in terms of personal piety, but as a part of the active Christian community. As I write, I’m still deciding, but I hope I’ll find something that will focus the season, and teach me to be a better Christian once Easter comes, too.
In Christ, with you,
The Rev. David Nicol, Pastor of Hampden Highlands UMC
Pastor-of-Record to Ellingwood’s Corner UMC