Lent: Why on Earth?

On Wednesday (10 Feb 2016) most traditional Churches start a six and an half weeks of fasting called ‘Lent’. Though this is a lot less popular in Evangelical contexts, I’ve been part of a group of friends who has been partaking for several years now. So what is Lent and why on earth would anyone want to partake?

Put simply, Lent is a fixed time of fasting. It’s the 40 days (plus 6 Sundays) before Easter during which traditional churches fast. There are many reasons why Christians (or even people of different world views) fast. Let me list a few.

Dependence on God

Several of those Christian reasons can be summarised under the umbrella of expressing dependence on God. Fasting – whatever form it takes – shows that one doesn’t want to depend on earthly desires, but looks to God for the sole source of life.

  • Seeking mercy. In Jonah 3 we see that a whole city seeks God’s mercy by fasting. They realise they have sinned and express their regret by fasting.
  • Asking for insight. In Daniel 10:1-4 and Acts 13:1-3 we see believers looking for an answer from God through a time of fasting. They set aside a period of not eating to express their focus on God’s revelation.
  • Starting a task. In Matthew 4:1-11 Jesus is fasting before he starts his public ministry. He shows his dependence on the Father at the very beginning of his important task on Earth.

Other Reasons

However, fasting is not reserved only for Christians. Some of the above reasons are seen in other religions as well, but here are a few other, more general reasons why people would fast.

  • Showing displeasure. Hunger strikes, which are also long periods of fasting, are used as political weapons to protest against a current situation. Similar to the seeking mercy they express a desire that the rulers change their ways or plans.
  • Improving health. In a lot of ways, going on a diet is also a form of fasting. You’re denying your body certain foods in order to lose weight, or to do a detox to give your body a shock start. (I am aware the health benefits are debated, but this is still a reason people fast.)
  • Donating food. History shows people who have been hungry or have denied themselves to buy something else in order to be able to give their food or the money they would have used to bring relief to the poor.

There may be even more reasons, but the above ones give a good overview of why people have chosen to fast throughout history.

Preparation for Easter

So what makes Lent different from this? Lent, similar to Advent (time before Christmas), is a time of preparation.

It’s a special privilege that we can celebrate the Resurrection of Christ every single week at Church, but it holds the danger of it becoming mundane. Having an amazing experience once a year will be a lot more precious than experiencing that every week. The latter will lose its edge.

Similarly, every Sunday celebration can (and should be) a mini-Easter, but at the same time I’ve experienced how important Easter can be if it stands out in the crowd of Sundays. One of the ways that this can happen, is by looking forward to it – several weeks before the event. Enter Lent.

Lenten Preparation

That preparation has traditionally been done in several ways, which I briefly want to mention here. In a next post I’ll give some examples of how each of those can take shape during Lent.

  • Self-denial. Lent is a time for self-denial. Self-denial can easily be confused with asceticism. While asceticism as the denial of worldly pleasures tends to be stemming from a prolonged dualism where material things are seen as not important, that is not the case with self-denial. Self-denial is (for a period in time) denying things to the self in value of the Other. While asceticism holds the danger of not being grateful for the full self (both body and soul), self-denial expresses that the self is less important than God. Self-denial can be expressed by temporarily denying yourself your preferences to show that you value them less than God, and to express that you are not dependant on them.
  • Confession. Next to this, the Lenten time has been considered as a time of cleansing: one to repent and step away from recurring sins. It is humbling oneself before God and expressing the desire for change and the failure in establishing that change from within the self. In it, the believer asks God for forgiveness and help to become more like him.
  • Prayer. Lent is also a time where the Church traditionally has taken to refocus on God and on spending time with him. Prayer here can be seen as any broad form of interacting with God.
  • Compassion. Self-denial knows its counter in prayer (as focus on God), but also in compassion, wherein other human beings are deemed higher. The time of Lent is the time par excellence to serve the poor and the weak in society while we await the Resurrection of Christ to win against poverty and injustice in this world.

Partaking in Lent has changed my perspective on Easter and on liturgy/ritual in general. While I used to (partly) share in the Evangelical scepticism towards tradition, participating in Lent has shown me the value of preparing for Easter throughout an extended time. Easter has become the most important day in the year. It is the moment my body and soul crave for: through the preparation I celebrate the Resurrection fuller and deeper than before.

I can talk a lot about Lent, but there is only one way that you can understand what exactly it means: by trying it. Join us?