Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a
season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided
a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning
of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now
kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
Book of Common Prayer, p. 263-4
Most mornings, I log onto on Facebook, and visit an online “talk show” presented by a college friend with whom I used to sing in the gospel choir. This morning I was pleased to have been presented with a very thought provoking question: Do you believe in fasting? Why/Why Not? As a general rule, I believe in fasting, but the question provoked me to both think about fasting specifically and my life where it pertains to the observation of Lent. Understand that Lent is a season of both penitence and preparation, I decided to use the question as an opportunity to do a research study on the season and to launch my personal Lenten meditations. Looking through scripture and just doing general research online, I was able to mine various themes of significance for this special season.
Spiritual Significance of Lenten Rituals
The Imposition of Ashes
Growing up in a Baptist church, The Lenten Season wasn’t as tightly observed as was Holy Week or as tightly as say the season of Advent (which in my church was reverent and expectant but decidedly not solemn ornecessarilypenitential). On Ash Wednesday, we often had a service in which we had our foreheads rubbed with ashes, and at Advent we lit candles and made reflections upon certain themes anticipated in Christmas. What Lent and Advent both have in common is that they both look forward to Christ: Advent looking toward the celebration of the birth of Christ; Lent toward His sacrifice and resurrection.
Lent beings on Ash Wednesday, which refers to the liturgical service wherein congregants have their foreheads rubbed with ashes. I learned through my work at an Episcopal church that the ashes used for this service comes from the burning of the palm leaves used in Holy Week services from the previous year and is mixed with talc powder. Throughout the Bible, the wearing of “sackcloth and ashes” was an activity used to express grief. As Lent is both a contemplative and penitential time, one should express genuine remorse over personal transgressions and work to demonstrate repentance over personal sinfulness (not just the indiscretions of Mardi Gras!)—thus the receipt of the ashes.
The Forty Days
The season of Lent is forty days, not including Sundays, which appears to mirror Rabbinical prohibitions of fasting on the Shabbat. In the Bible, the number forty is associated with purification and sanctification. Indeed, in the story of Noah and the flood, it rained forty days and forty nights, to cleanse the earth of wickedness; the Israelites sojourned in the wilderness for forty years so that the faithless generation could be purged from the ranks of the people; and Jesus was in the wilderness forty days fasting and praying (being in all points tempted) following His baptism and before launching His earthly ministry. That being said, forty days is an appropriate allotment of time for the observation of Lent. For forty days we should emulate Christ and spend time in spiritual focus in preparation for the ministry to which God has called us.
In the purest sense, when someone mentions fasting, one usually refers to the intentional abstention from food and/or drink for a focused and spiritual purpose. Fasting is mentioned throughout the Bible, so much so that Jesus even gives instructions on fasting. Fasting also includes abstention from certain activities—passages in Exodus and I Corinthians and Exodus make references to fasting from sexual intercourse for a specific time and for a spiritual purpose. Corporate fasts are also mentioned in the Bible in the books of Esther, Joel and Luke. I also learned of corporate fasts observed on Jewish holy days from observant coworkers.
Fasting imposes discipline on the body so that one may come to focus more clearly on matter of the Spirit. During Lent, fasting is a common practice as people seek to tune into God’s station more clearly. Often people give up activities…one friend routinely gives up Facebook and another sacrifices potato chips, white bread, leavened bread or chocolate. During a service I attended this year, the vicar joked of some who gave up vegetables for Lent! His main concern, however was that people give up things that create the crazy busyness that is in our lives…busyness that separates us from our focus on family, fellowship, personal study, ministry and most importantly God.
I am now searching my soul. Many things that one might consider fasting are things that we might limit for the sake of our health anyway: potato chips, candy, processed foods and excessive sugars… There is this sense there this time of sacrifice must be something large-scale and dramatic, but I am coming to realize that sacrifice is sacrifice. It’s personal and that is what Lent is about…getting personal with God. So, no w the question has come up again, pricking my soul as I move through a new and different phase of life. I am now at that place again…what do you sacrifice for Lent?