When I was in high school, I decided to start giving up chocolate for Lent. “Chocolate?” my aunt said when she heard. “Aren’t you supposed to give up something a bit more … penitential?”
“What could be more penitential than giving up chocolate?” I asked. “I’ll certainly be thinking about it all the time!”
In many Christian traditions, it is traditional to fast from something, to give it up, during the season of Lent, particularly delicious or sweet foods. That’s where Mardi Gras comes from, and why we have pancakes right before lent–the idea was to have a big party where you used up all the stuff in the house that you would be fasting from, particularly forms of fat such as butter, shortening, lard, etc which were used in the making of pancakes. That way nothing was wasted and you wouldn’t be tempted to break your fast. Many of these traditions are still practiced today, but we don’t always think about why we’re doing it.
So why do we fast? And why do we do it in Lent, specifically? Well, Lent is a time of preparation for Holy Week and Easter. It’s supposed to get us ready for crucifixion and resurrection. It’s a time to remember what Christ did for us. It’s a time to remember that we are sinners, and that our sins are so great that Christ had to die to save us from them. It’s a time to take a good, hard look at one’s own life and the life of the community and acknowledge the things that are broken and ask for God’s help in restoring them. It’s a time to build your relationships with God and with your fellow human beings. It’s a time to practice spiritual disciplines–fasting, praying, meditation, etc.–that help us grow spiritually.
Fasting, giving things up for Lent, shouldn’t be about being ostentatiously pious or just doing things because it’s traditional. It should be a way of taking stock of your life and paring back the things that you don’t need, that distract you from God. It can be a way of reminding yourself what the season is all about–for example, every time I was presented with the opportunity to each chocolate when I gave it up, it was a time for me to remember not only what I was giving up, but why I was doing it. Fasting is not automatically a way to good spiritual health. It should be accompanied by an attitude of prayer and a focus on what God has done for us and in us and continues to do for us and in us. From my own experience, when I focused on what I was missing while I was fasting and not on God, I didn’t get any spiritual growth or blessing from it, I just felt deprived. When I focused on God’s love for me, on my repentance for my sins and the grace of God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ, then fasting became the catalyst to spiritual growth and health.
Fasting is one of the spiritual disciplines. Disciplines–that’s from the same root word that disciple comes from. Spiritual disciplines are tools we can use to help us become better disciples when used regularly and intentionally. They can help us stay on our path following our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. They can help us break down the barriers that we put up to the work of God in our lives. There are internal spiritual disciplines–prayer, fasting, meditation, study–and external spiritual disciplines–simplicity, stewardship, evangelism, and others. All have the potential to help us as disciples. This Lent, consider regularly practicing some form of spiritual discipline as we prepare for the death and resurrection of our Lord.