February 14, 2018 is an odd day for many. For some, it is the crashing of two irreconcilable celebrations. For others, it is the intersections of two days they do not celebrate.
What am I talking about?
Today is the start of the Lenten season. Lent is a 40 day fast leading up to Easter. The season begins with Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is calculated by counting 40 days back from Easter, not including Sundays. On Ash Wednesday you begin your fasting, which means eating only 1 full meal a day, as well as giving up anything that would be considered excessive. Friday fasts specifically mean eating no meat- though fish is not considered “meat” since it is not a land animal.
Ash Wednesday services are typically “marked” by having those who attend the service marked with ashes upon their foreheads, either in the sign of a cross or a dot. These ashes are made from the palms used in last year’s Palm Sunday service.
Lent is the season in which the church is universally repenting of sinfulness as well as preparing their hearts for the Passion Week. These ashes are a reminder of the biblical practice of mourning with sack cloth and ashes. Fasting typically accompanies mourning and repentance in the Old Testament.
But who does Lent?
Lent is a practice that the Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, Lutheran and some other denominations practice. Not every church practices fasting inside of Lent though.
So why should we fast during Lent?
Let’s first talk more about what fasting is, to discuss what the importance could be.
Here are a couple of definitions of fasting:
“Christian Fasting is the voluntary denial of something for a specific time, for a spiritual purpose, by an individual, family, community, or nation.”
“The spiritual discipline of fasting is abstention from physical nourishment for the purpose of spiritual sustenance. This difficult discipline requires practice before it can be effective, since it is not natural for us to pursue self-denial. There are different methods and degrees of fasting, but all of them promote self-control and reveal the degree to which we are ruled by our bodily appetites. Fasting can consist of abstention from other things which control us, such as television and other forms of entertainment.”
To put it simply: Fasting is taking something out of your life in order to be more intentional about recognizing and prioritizing God in your life. The most frequent fasts that are seen would be fasts from food, or fasts from types of food, though more and more I have seen and heard of entertainment and social media fasts.
A Christian’s fast is not an attempt to lose weight. A Christian’s fast is not an attempt to save money. That would be a diet or a budget.
When Christians fast, they are trying to accomplish a couple of things. The first would be to put to death the passions of our flesh. So often we are controlled by the desire for pleasure. This is known as gluttony.
“Gluttony is really not about how much we’re eating, but about how our eating reflects how much pleasure we take in eating and why. Eating is meant to be pleasurable, and so is feeling filled and being hungry…. Gluttony creeps in and corrupts these pleasures when our desires for them run out of control…. What’s vicious about gluttony is that these pleasures dominate everything that’s important. This vice degrades us into being mere pleasure seekers. This is what gluttony is really about.”
When we fast, what we are doing is telling our body that food is a gift from God, but not only that, but that God himself is to be our greatest source of satisfaction and fulfillment. Jesus, in John 6 declares that He is the Bread of Life, and in John 4 He declares that those who drink from Him will have everlasting springs coming from them. Our contentment should never come from how decadent our food is, or how much pleasure we can get, or in how much we have. Paul states that it is Jesus Christ who is our contentment, and through Jesus we can enjoy life whether we have little or have a lot (Phil 4:10-13).
So, let’s bring this back to Lent.
Lent is the season in which Christians recognize our sinfulness and we mourn over it. Fasting is an appropriate action when we recognize our sinfulness. Sadly, many of us are deluding ourselves into thinking we are better than we really are. And this is where the second part of fasting really comes into play.
“Fasting nurtures prayer, makes space for God, and helps Christians experience their need for God.”
Fasting is not simply the absence of a food, but replacing that time when you would ordinarily be eating with a time of prayer. Fasting is not easy, and it takes practice. As mentioned in the quote from Ken Boa, often times our first few times fasting feel like nothing other than hunger.
But listen to hunger.
When is the last time you hungered and thirsted for God?
In the beatitudes Christ states “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6 NIV). Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that our worries and concerns should not be about what we eat, drink, or what we wear. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
Fasting is a tool that God uses to align our hearts with his. We do not do it for show (Matthew 6:16-18), and we do not do it because we think we can control God. Instead, it is our way of asking God to control us and our passions. It is our way of saying “Lord, I am often distracted from what is important– redirect me!”
You might not be putting ashes on your head today; you will likely be eating chocolates tonight, but I ask you to consider looking into Lent. Investigate fasting. The Missouri Lutheran Synod says this about fasting over Lent
Q: Do Lutherans have to give up something for Lent as some other denominations require?
A: From the perspective of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, “giving something up for Lent” is entirely a matter of Christian freedom. It would be wrong, from our perspective, for the church to make some sort of “law” requiring its members to “give something up for Lent,” since the Scriptures themselves do not require this. If, on the other hand, a Christian wants to give something up for Lent as a way of remembering and personalizing the great sacrifice that Christ made on the cross for our sins, then that Christian is certainly free to do so–as long as he or she does not “judge” or “look down on” other Christians who do not choose to do this.
Here are a couple blog posts from others about the Lent season
For more in-depth discussion of What Catholics do for Lent
- Questions and Answers about Lent and Lenten Practices
What Lutherans and other denominations do for Lent
- Lutheran Liturgical Practices during Lent
- Frequently Asked Questions Missouri Synod
- Orthodox Presbyterian Church
- Do Wesleyans Do Lent?
- General History of Anabaptists and Lent
Lyne M Baab, “Fasting,” Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, General Editor Glen Scorgie, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 442-43.
 Rebecca Konynkyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), 141
 Kenneth Boa, Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 84
 Lyne M Baab, “Fasting,” Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, General Editor Glen Scorgie, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 442-43.