I don’t understand Lent

I’m sure to get some backlash on this one, but why not open a healthy dialog?

I understand that Lent is a long standing tradition in the church. I understand that it is connected to the celebration of Passion week and is meant to prepare our hearts for that liturgical event. I understand that it’s purpose is to give us the opportunity to practice self-denial as act of worship. What I don’t understand is the sort of casual Lent-observer who gives up coffee or something like that. What’s the point?

First let me say that my family never practiced Lent and so I have no warm-fuzzy memories associated with the practice, so it’s not something that I would practice out of pure sentimentality. I need a really good reason to have caffeine headaches for 40 days.

Second, let me say that my personal studies on how worship and covenant faithfulness in the scripture are portrayed most often involve feasting and celebration and not so much abstinence from food or drink. Fasting is of course the exception which I want to address here as well. The fundamental symbol of covenant faithfulness for the people of Israel was the Passover feast. There were many other feasts and festivals through out the year, but the main idea was always to celebrate and worship in the presence of the Lord. His love brings freedom and rest and not slavery and toil. Sacrifices at the temple were more than a bloody, religious ritual. They would sit down and eat the slaughtered animal with some bread and wine. I would guess that they had a grand time as they celebrated YHWH’s covenant faithfulness together. In the New Testament, the ministry of Jesus was one of eating and drinking as well. Jesus would meet and fellowship with people at meals and celebrations as well. His primary sacramental act of worship that he gave us was a fellowship feast. I think that there is an unintended myth communicated by abstaining from food and drink as worship. The myth is that food and drink are bad in some way. They are good gifts from our heavenly Father. Could it be that “Fat Tuesday” and “Ash Wednesday” just perpetuate the ancient Gnostic heresy that the physical is sinful?

What about fasting? On ye ol’ Wikipedia, it says that Lent is a symbol of Jesus 40 days in the wilderness. Why is this connected to Passion Week? Shouldn’t that happen some other time? Jesus ministry proceeding the crucifixion and resurrection had more feasting and parties than fasting. In general, my understanding is that fasting is an act of worship that is associated with mourning and repentance. That’s fine, but why should mourning and repentance be isolated to once a year and why should it take the form of something so ritualized? My Togolese friend and pastor, Macklann Basse shared with me that he always found it strange that Americans never fasted. Not only that but we would have prayer meetings with doughnuts. He said that in his cultural context, prayer and fasting always went hand in hand. So, I’m not suggesting that fasting is inappropriate, but rather that we should let scripture give us the proper understanding of how and why we fast. I once fasted with some friends for no other reason than we thought it would be a good spiritual exercise. I had nothing in particular that I was mourning or repenting of. I found that the fast was a waste of energy. Fasting should be an act of worship connected with mourning and repentance that we need to put into regular practice instead of making it a once a year ritual.

I realize that I am sticking my nose in a very old argument and that I’m not saying anything particularly original. Still, I’d be interested in some of my more “liturgical” friends to share what makes Lent meaningful to them.



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  1. #1 by Frederick McFarland on March 11, 2011 - 5:53 pm

    Lent was the first social network for Christians, the church was worshiping together getting ready for the common celebration of Easter. The common united celebration of getting ready to celebrate the death and resurrection of the Lamb of God, the once and for all (covenant community) sacrifice was expressed by a common/shared calendar.

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