This Wednesday many Christians around the world begin observing the season of Lent. This is a time of repentance, a time of somber reflection about our need for a Savior, and a time to prepare for the joyful good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter.
From early times, Christians used late winter for these purposes. Some had shorter seasons of Lent and some had longer seasons of Lent; eventually, they united in observing a penitential season of forty days, remembering the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness as he battled Satan and his temptations. Those forty days are prefigured in the forty days and nights of rain during the time of Noah and the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday actually includes forty-six days, because the Sundays during Lent are not counted. Even in Lent, Sunday marks the weekly celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Therefore, these Sundays are labeled Sundays in Lent, but not Sundays of Lent.
Even on Sundays, though, traditional Christians scale back during Lent. The Hebrew word “alleluia,” which means “praise the Lord,” is not said or sung during Lent. Some congregations do not decorate with flowers during Lent, and some do not use handbells or chimes during Lent. The hymns of Lent are somber and reflective, placing emphasis on our need for a Savior and on the work our Savior accomplished for us. Some of the traditional hymns of this type are: Come to Calvary’s Holy Mountain, Go to Dark Gethsemane, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, and O Sacred Head Now Wounded.
Many Christians use the time of Lent to fast. Fasting means going without something for a time. Sometimes a fast means no food at all—people are required to fast before some medical procedures. (Because people do not eat while they sleep, the first meal of the day breaks a fast—hence, breakfast.) Other times fasting means going without one kind of food or activity. Those who fast might give up candy, chocolate, soft drinks, coffee, alcohol, television, electronic games, or Facebook. Although the Bible does not command Christians to fast, Jesus clearly expects Christians to fast. He does not say “if you fast,” but “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16). The instructions that follow warn Christians not to fast to impress other people; if so, impressing other people is the only reward we receive. Instead, we are to act normally while we fast. We are, of course, free to tell others we are fasting, especially if they offer us something we have chosen to give up for Lent. But we do not fast to show off our faith. Likewise, a fast for physical benefits—giving up desserts to lose weight—is not a religious exercise. Those who lose weight during Lent have received their reward in full. When we fast, the purpose is spiritual benefits, not mere worldly benefits.
Religious people (not just Christians) have observed three spiritual benefits that come from fasting. First, fasting increases dedication. By giving up something I love for God, I prove to myself that I love God more. Second, fasting increases self-control. If I can say no to chocolate or to electronic games for nearly seven weeks, I will be strengthened to say no to temptations to sin whenever they come. Third, fasting increases compassion. When I fast voluntarily, I understand the poor around me who fast, not for spiritual reasons, but because they cannot have what they want because of their poverty.
Some Christians treat fasting lightly. When I was a child, my father gave up fresh watermelon for Lent, and my pastor gave up swimming in Lake Superior. I have found that fasting does help to focus my attention on Christ and his Word. Moreover, I have learned about myself through fasting. (I have learned, for example, that it is harder for me to live without coffee than without alcohol.) Fasting cannot be used to bargain with God. We cannot make demands upon the Lord and insist that he fulfill them because we have fasted. Like all Christian activity, fasting helps to build a relationship with the Lord. In our fast, if we are not seeking other rewards, we draw closer to Jesus and understand better both what he expects from us and what he promises us.
Fasting is not required. Every Christian may decide whether or not she or she will fast, during Lent or at any other time. Lent is not required. We are told to let no one judge us about Sabbaths, seasons, holidays, or matters of food and drink. In the history of the Church, fasting and Lent have been found to be helpful to Christians. However you spend your time between now and Easter, may the Lord bless your observances and use them to draw you closer to him. J.