We are just past the middle of Lent, a customary observance that I did not grow up with, but which I now heartily embrace. I admit that people look a bit strangely at one when one talks about fasting. It has not been a major theme in evangelical talk, nor one that plays well. But it is certainly important. What have I learned?
First, Lent is about embracing the cross, not just as a historical event in the past, but as an event that determines one’s way of life. My wife and I belong to an expression of the new monasticism, the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, and “The Rule of the brothers and sisters is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We should be troubled about nothing except this all encompassing rule.
All that matters is that one be created anew.” In line with this our church has been holding Fridays in Lent on which we (1) do the stations of the cross (which allows for more meditation on them than just doing them once a year on Good Friday), (2) hear an appropriate teaching, and (3) eat a (non-meat) soup and bread supper together. That is hardly suffering (although the traffic on the way to a 6 PM service can add more than a bit of tribulation), but it does help us reflect upon the question of what taking up our cross the following Jesus might mean for us.
Second, Lent is about discovering the freedom we have in Jesus to say no to our desires. Many, many times in the New Testament passages trace evil to our desires (often translated “lusts” but actually a far more general term, perhaps better translated “drives”). I am most familiar with 2 Pet 1 and Jas 1, but other bodies of literature also refer to the concept. The Spirit or knowledge of Jesus or divine wisdom (the various letters differ in how they express this) frees us from the power of desire. But until we say, “No,” we never learn this freedom practically. Deut 8 says that God caused Israel to hunger in the wilderness so that they would learn that people do not live by bread alone. In Lent we say no so that we learn something of the same freedom.
The fact is that the desire-driven life is the scattered life, the hectic life, which is neither physically nor emotionally healthy. One aspect of my lenten discipline has been in finding things to get rid of – give to charity, give to another person, or recycle. Old notes and papers can go. I probably kept them for the feeling of security that full files give me. Equipment we are no longer using around the house can be given away. Clothing that I am not wearing regularly and perhaps some that I am can also be given away. And my books – I have gone back over my shelves and found more of them that now have found a new home in a library where others can use them. I am also looking at my commitments: “purity of heart is to will one thing.” My one thing is to will to do the will of Jesus. Not all of what I am doing is his will, his calling now. Perhaps once it was, but not now. And then there is giving away money and other securities, simplifying finances. That may mean that I need to trust Jesus to supply what I need, and he might cut down on my lifestyle. If I will to will his will, then that is not a problem. That is one reason why Lent is often marked by a significant increase in charitable giving, for our Lord loves the poor and teaches care for the poor, whatever the cost to me personally. I embrace his frugality and simplicity with the joy of St. Francis. Lent is indeed about refocusing life and finding new freedom.
Third, Lent is traditionally a time of preparing for baptism. Originally it was the 40 days before Easter during which catechumens did their final preparation for baptism. Baptism is the door of the church the way that a wedding is the door of marriage. Both are the times when one officially makes the pledge, in the one case to Jesus and in the other case to a spouse. So other loves need to be set aside before marriage, just as various sins need to be set aside before baptism. (In fact, part of the catechetical process was teaching converts from paganism that many things that were perfectly accepted in Greco-Roman society were indeed sins; in our day we have a failure of the catechetical process in that many in the church do not recognize that many of the values in their lives are those of this age, not those of the kingdom of God, and thus are sins.) The bride and groom get themselves ready in body and disposition for their joining, which mirrors that of Jesus and the Church, and so the church needs to get itself ready for its great groom, if it has not already gotten itself ready before baptism. A time of self-examination and repentance is necessary as one looks forward with joy to the great event of Easter.
I love Lent.I love this time of spiritual intensity: more focused prayer, more generous giving, more intense spiritual practices like fasting, more frequent time in church. I love it like I love the way a good shower cleanses my body. I love it like I love the way that an intense time with my wife brings us closer. I love it the way I love that the pain of breaking a bad habit brings about the joy of freedom. It is an intense time, a focused time, a reflective time, and, at heart, a joyful time, at least in the prospect of what it is producing in my life.