It was my first year in seminary when I decided to undergo a 30 hour fast. I had not planned for it, prepared for it, or prayed over it. I simply decided that I should do it. I picked a weekend (conveniently when there was no kitchen program in my residence), and started. I think I complained for about 29 of the 30 hours. What is worse, I ended my fast by joining a friend for dinner. I ordered a large pepperoni pizza with extra cheese. Something about ending my fast with the act of gluttony makes me think that I probably went off course somewhere along the way. Looking back I find it interesting how much of my fast was spent thinking about, complaining about, or dreaming about the food I had given up.
Lent is an interesting time in the life of the church for it stands in direct opposition to the present culture. Our culture exalts the pursuit of individual happiness over and above all else. Individual enjoyment stands as the foundation to our self-focused, self-gratifying, and self- worshiping day and age. Hollywood bombards us with the images of blissful and consequence-free pleasantries, and media advertises happier existences through the implementation of products. It is clear that the cultural view of life is one of maximizing our own pleasure. As Sheryl Crow once wrote “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” Because of this, Lent is mostly non-existent in the cultural view. If it is recognized, it either viewed as the gap between two parties, or defined by what we have given up more than what we fill our lives with. Neither does nothing to change our focus. After all, a time in our life characterized by complaints over no pizza is still a time of life defined by pizza. It is still life lived in the context of serving our own self-gratifications.
Lent, however, calls us to live our lives in service to God, and to focus more on his praise and glory than our own self-adulations. Lent is and can be a radical time in our spiritual lives because it stands in direct opposition the spirit of the culture. It lends itself to a different direction. While the culture encourages us to build life upon the altar of our own enjoyments, in Lent we actively limit our enjoyments. After all, what is more diametrically opposed to a self-pleasing culture than a time of fasting self-denial? We go without tangible expression of our enjoyment to remind ourselves of the treasures in heaven which we are to store up for ourselves. At best the season is somber and introspective. It calls to mind the struggles of our spiritual life and God’s call for our own spiritual formation and growth. At worst it becomes a dour look at our own morbidity; a 40 day onslaught of hell-fire and damnation.
Yet while Lent lends itself to a different focus, it does not stand distinct from our regular life of faith. Observing Lent, therefore, is about observing the reality that is claimed on our lives by token of our baptism. Our lenten journey occurs in the context of our lives lived in tandem with our creator and redeemer. It is when we remove the observance from Lent from our regular life of faith, that we make it out to be nothing more than a physical activity, turning the time without our favorite pleasantries into 40 day period of ranting and complaining (or worse yet, a system to lose weight so we can look our best for the summer!).
It is true that this season lends itself to reflections of our own sinfulness. We hear about our inability to save ourselves; we reflect on the reality that we have not deserved nor merited the love and grace of God. Yet, the call to repentance, growth, formation, and change is not done out an attempt to appease one out to get us; rather it occurs jointly out of God’s call to know him more, and our desire to rest our souls in his presence. The limiting of all self-indulgent gratifications reminds us of the truth by which we are called to live our entire lives, that we do not live by bread alone (or chocolate, sweets, fries, candy, beer, or whatever else we choose to give up), but by the living and enduring word of God. What is more, this realization does not end upon Easter morning celebration. Rather we take the lessons and insights received in this time of self denial and fasting, and allow it to inform our future walk of faith. The lenten observance, then becomes part of the overall celebration of our faith, a faith that is not made up of pockets of seasons or moments of celebration – but one where we are called to constantly journey our lives with the saviour.
How has the observance of Lent changed the way that you exercise your faith in other liturgical seasons or celebrations?