Getting ready for Lent… assuming you do Lent.
- Lent /lɛnt/ n. A time before Easter for Christians to fast, abstain, and practice self-control. Usually 40 days, like Christ in the wilderness, starting Ash Wednesday.
- [Lenten /'lɛnt.(ə)n/ adj.]
- Shrovetide /'ʃroʊv.taɪd/ n. The Sunday to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, when Christians customarily confess sins (or “shrive”) before Lent.
- [Shrove /ʃroʊv/ vt., shrive /ʃraɪv/ v.]
I didn’t grow up with Lent. I grew up Fundamentalist, and Fundies consider Lent a Catholic thing and dead religion. After all, popular culture’s shrovetide activities tend to confirm all their suspicions.
In the United States we’ve got Mardi Gras. The term is French for “gross Tuesday,” a translation I like way better than the usual “fat Tuesday,” because while there’s a lot of awesome jazz, there’s also a lot of shameful behavior going on in those festivals. I’ve been to the New Orleans festival once, as a kid; all I remember were floats, beads, and coins which wouldn’t work in vending machines. I vaguely remember drunken revelers, but Mom definitely remembers that part of it, and found it so horrifying she sought us refuge in a church building.
In other parts of the world they celebrate Carnaval, Latin for “flesh party.” The general idea of these parties is you indulge your flesh and get it out of your system. ’Cause during Lent you’re meant to practice self-control… so do your drinking and fighting and fornicating now, while you still can. As if we weren’t supposed to put away that stuff once we started following Jesus.
See, that’s what makes me suspect these festivals were never actually started by Christians. More like lapsed Catholics who wanted to have some ironic fun at the expense of the devout. ’Cause you notice who actually goes to these things: Pagans and irreligious Christians. The devout stay home… unless they’re actually trying to evangelize the revelers, as my brother tried to do one year. (Hey, Jesus loves ’em too.)
Enough about what they’re up to. My point is Fundies, and other Christians who really don’t wanna practice any more self-control than they already do (assuming they do), use the revelry as their excuse to abstain from abstaining. I’ve heard ’em. “Look at those people. They sin their brains out, then go to confession, as if that wipes the slate clean.” And yeah, if you’re a bad Catholic, that’s how you think: Sin Tuesday, repent Wednesday; cheap grace cures all. But that’s like assuming every drunken Christmas party is a Protestant thing, or shopping mall riots are how we thank God for his blessings every Thanksgiving. Don’t confuse the secular madness with any actual religious observance.
Got that?… No; you don’t believe me and you’re gonna skip Lent regardless? Well, there’s no convincing some people.
I’ll just say this and be done with it: Most Fundies forego Lent not because it’s Catholic, for they’ve no problem with plenty of other customs which originated with the Catholics, like hymns and sermons and nativity crêches. It’s because they deprive themselves nothing, and use the excuse, “It’s not explicitly in the bible, so I needn’t do it” to justify a life of excess. They figure they’re righteous because they trust God, and their doctrines are orthodox. But they sin just as much as any Mardi Gras reveler—just in quieter ways. And rant over.
Okay, let’s set aside the smokescreens and distractions and ask the question: Should we practice Lent, and if so, how?
Giving things up—not for Lent, but for Jesus.
Lent’s the English word. The Greek is sarakostí, short for tessarakostí/“fortieth.” (The Latin is quadragesima/“fortieth.”) It stands for the 40 days before Easter Sunday.
Obviously it’s not an exact 40 days, the way churches practice it. The 40th day before Easter would be on the Tuesday after Ash Wednesday. But different churches sort out the 40 days in different ways. Roman Catholics start it at Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Easter, because they don’t fast Sundays, because Sabbath’s a feast day. Eastern Catholics and Orthodox churches start it at Clean Monday (i.e. today), partly ’cause they do fast Sundays—but as soon as their Lent is over, it’s Holy Week, which is a whole different fast. Either way, fasting is finished by Easter.
Yep, Lent’s considered a time of fasting. Just as Jesus went without food 40 days in the wilderness, we go without… well, something. The first Christians who practiced Lent likely went all hardcore, and went without food and water… and after enough of ’em died, decided maybe it was smarter to stick to bread and water. Or a vegetarian diet. Or, as American Catholics practice it nowadays, go without meat on Friday and Saturday. (Though for various iffy reasons fish is an exception.)
Protestant custom was usually to cut back to two meals a day, and give up something extra. That “giving up something extra” idea leaked back into Catholicism, and into popular culture, and now most people believe Lent consists only of “giving up
I myself joke, whenever I’m asked what I’m doing without, “I’m going without fruits and vegetables. Nothing but coffee and Goldfish crackers till Easter.” The kids joke, “I’ll give up smoking,” since they already don’t smoke.
It’s not a bad custom, but the point is we’re not giving it up for Lent; we’re giving it up for Jesus. What good does it do Jesus, and our relationship with him, if we do without it till Easter? Actually, what does he want us to do without? How might we grow closer to him if we abstain?
That’s why we tend to abstain from something difficult. It’s a reminder: Jesus is infinitely more important than that. He’s infinitely more important than any of our favorite things. During Lent, Jesus becomes our favorite thing—in a far more obvious way than usual.
For this reason we don’t necessarily pick something we oughta give up anyway. If you figure, “I really oughta give up adultery for Lent”: You really oughta give up adultery period. Don’t figure you’ll stop shoplifting, or verbally abusing people, but only till Easter. Don’t save righteousness for Lent. Don’t start sinning again after Easter. Just stop.
Choose what you’ll give up wisely. The first time I gave up something for Lent, I picked coffee. I love coffee. Makes sense to pick something which might have enough of a hold on me to tempt me. Problem is, when I have my coffee first thing in the morning, the first words out of my mouth are, “Thank you Jesus for coffee.” I’m in a thanksgiving mood. From there, I can go on to prayer, devotions, and other ways of honoring him. But when I don’t have that coffee, it’ll take longer to get into that mood. No, I’m not saying I need my coffee to worship Jesus; that’d be ridiculous. But dropping coffee didn’t help my relationship with Jesus any, and in some ways even hindered it. That’s the important thing. (And lest you’re worried about my caffeine addiction, I usually drink decaf. Not just for Lent.)
And no, don’t pick something which’ll irritate others, or cause them hardship. I unthinkingly did this myself one year: I was going without meat, and at a party I was given the duty of ordering pizza… so I selfishly ordered nothing but vegetable and cheese pizzas. Well, the other folks in the party of course wanted meat. They didn’t appreciate how I’d convenienced myself. Lots of fasting Christians do likewise: “Oh, I can’t go to that restaurant; I’m fasting,” and expect all their friends to accommodate their devotion. But that’s actually selfishness disguised as devotion. Don’t do that.
My students would joke, “I’ll give up bathing.” (Of course. They’re kids.) But they really, really needed to do so; they smelled enough like foot cheese as it was. And lest you get any ideas, don’t you give up bathing. Fasting is supposed to be invisible.
“You don’t need to prove anything to God.”
The biggest objection I hear from people about Lent (other than “that’s a Catholic thing, and I’m not Catholic”), is “Why do I need to fast? God knows my heart. He knows how devoted I am to him. I don’t need to prove it to him.”
Yeah you do.
Genesis 22.10-12 KWL
- 10 Abraham stretched out his hand to take the knife and sacrifice his son.
- 11 The L
ORD’s angel called him from the heavens: “Abraham! Abraham!”
- Abraham said, “Look at me.”
- 12 God said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the boy.
- Don’t do anything to him, for now I know you fear God.
- You didn’t spare your only son from me.”
How’d God know how far Abraham would go to serve him? Well it clearly wasn’t by reading his thoughts and knowing his intentions. Good intentions are nice, but add a penny and you still can’t afford chewing gum. God doesn’t judge us, good or bad, with praise or condemnation, on our unrealized potential. Only on what we actually do. Till you actually do it, or don’t, you got nothing. Nothing.
God knows how devoted you are? No he doesn’t. Because if you haven’t done anything for him, all he has to go on is how devoted you think you are. You haven’t proven yourself. When the rough stuff comes, you’ve done nothing to steel yourself for it other than indulge in a lot of wishful thinking. You imagine yourself a mighty saint, who can stand up to anything when the time comes, but do you currently? Say, something as small and stupid as no social media for 40 days? ’Cause if you can’t hack the little things, you’re not gonna magically grow a spine when real trials come. I don’t care what the movies display—where the pushover suddenly realizes there was a hero in him all along. That’s fiction for a reason: In real life, that bravado is always a bluff. Push ’em once more, and their courage evaporates. Pushovers need to work, hard, at growing self-control. They can, and it’ll surprise people. But it never materializes from thin air.
Expecting it to pop out when you need it, though you never prepared for it: Won’t happen. Those people aren’t gonna withstand a thing, and aren’t getting any crown of life.
God knew Abraham thought he was devoted, but he still wanted to see it. He wanted to know it by experience, not by intellect. It’s why he said, through his angel, now he knew Abraham feared God.
So do you know it substantively? You can: Start fasting.
God knows your potential. Now he wants to see you live up to it. Even if it’s in some small, silly way, like going without social media for Lent.
It’s also something we need to see in ourselves. We need to prove to our flesh who’s in charge. If we’re gonna resist and deny our flesh, and gain control over those unconscious urges to gratify ourselves, fasting develops self-control. The Holy Spirit grants us the fruit of self-control, and helps it grow faster. Fasting does this way faster than every other technique.
Putting something down… and taking something up.
Most people talk about giving something up for Lent. Not enough of us talk about practicing something new for Lent. ’Cause when you fast, you’re meant to pray instead of eat; and when you give up caffeine for Lent, you’re meant to pray instead of drink. Do a little something extra for Jesus.
Do what? Up to you. Y’might block off a little extra time for prayer or bible-reading. Might join a prayer or study group. Might volunteer for charity work, or some other kind of regular Christian activity. Sometimes Christians have the goal of making this a regular practice in their lives, even beyond Lent. More often it’s just till Easter: If you gave up reading novels to read the bible, you oughta be finished with the bible by Easter, so back to the novels. Nothing wrong with that. Well, depending on the novels.
I’ve done special bible studies during Lent in previous years. Or extra prayer meetings, extra offerings and charitable donations, extra work directly with the needy; more so than usual. Some churches do something special during this time; get involved in it. If Lent is about extra focus on Jesus, we need to do more than passively focus on him by not doing something. We should act.
Yes, like all fasting, Lent is voluntary. Fasts aren’t mandated in the bible. They’re traditions and practices invented by us Christians, like Christmas and Easter, so we have plenty of freedom when it comes to how we observe ’em. That’s why customs vary from nation to nation, church to church, house to house.
True, some churches don’t leave it up to you. They’re doing Lent. The Catholics, fr’instance: They’re big on worshiping God together, in unity, as a group. Local bishops can determine exceptions, but in general, if you’re a member of that church, you’re gonna do as your church does. If not, why are you even there?
This is where Lent can become a sin: If anyone promises to do something, God holds us to it. If I join a church, I’ve obligated myself to participate in the life of that church. If I can’t do that, they need to be okay with it… or I need to find another church.
So when Catholics claim they’re observing Lent, but they insist on doing it their own way instead of in a way their church approves of, they’re harming their relationship with their church. They’re violating any promises they’ve made to their church. They’re often hiding their non-participation from others, yet pretending they’re fasting right along with everyone else: That’s hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is fraud, and fraud is sin.
You might have totally valid objections to the way your church does Lent. They might be too legalistic. Or you have health problems. Or your job’s in the way. Or, like every other Catholic-in-name-only on St. Patrick’s Day, you wanna get plowed on green Guinness. But you need to work these issues out with your church. Don’t just break their rules and your promises, and claim it’s freedom in Christ. Freedom in Christ isn’t freedom to sin.
Are they too legalistic? Maybe they didn’t realize it. Someone got overzealous, and didn’t know they were creating hardship. Hey, it’s not always because someone’s on a power trip. But even if it is a tinhorn dictator of a pastor trying to make everyone confirm, work this out. ’Cause if that’s the case, you really shouldn’t be at that church. And if it’s you, that needs to be dealt with too.
As for those Christians who don’t just skip Lent but openly mock it: This is exactly the sort of thing Paul wrote the Romans about.
Romans 14.5 KWL
- 5 One distinguishes day from day; one determines every day the same.
- Each to their own. Make up your own mind!
- 6 One who thinks so about a day, thinks it for the Master’s sake.
- Those who eat, eat for the Master’s sake: They give thanks to God.
- Those who don’t eat, don’t eat, and give thanks to God.
- 7 None of us lives for ourselves, dies for ourselves:
- 8 We live for the Master when we live; we die for the Master when we die.
- So, both when we live and when we die, we’re of the Master.
- 9 This is why Christ died and lived: He can be Master over the dead and living.
- 10 Why criticize your fellow Christian? Why ridicule your fellow Christian?
- Everyone will stand at God’s judgment, 11 for it’s written,
- “I live,” says the Lord, “so every knee will bend to me.
- Every tongue will acknowledge God.”
- 12 So each of us will give a word about ourselves to God— 13 so we ought no longer criticize one another.
- Instead, criticize this more: Putting an obstacle or offenses before fellow Christians.
Lent, practiced correctly, helps Christians get closer to Jesus. Ridicule (unless it’s to point out a legitimate flaw in our thinking) doesn’t help. Either do it or don’t, but don’t slam the people who are making an honest effort. Yeah, there are people who are only going through the motions to look good, and that’s all the reward they’ll get,
And it just makes sense to do it before Easter, the day Jesus rose from the dead and revealed to us that he really had defeated sin and death. That’s why, when Easter comes and we stop fasting, we can celebrate his victory all the more.