Updated: Aug 13, 2021
One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a priest is "What is Lent"? If I asked you to shout out words or phrases that you think of when I ask you what Lent means to you, you might say, "40 days" or "penitence" or "purple" or, most likely, "giving something up." The custom of self-sacrifice and fasting is an ancient one, finding its roots in today’s Hebrew Scripture from Joel, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children…let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.”
As you will hear in a few minutes, the first Christians instituted Lent as a season of “penitence and fasting” for all Christians, but especially for those who had committed “notorious” sins and were separated from the church. It was the custom for those people to wear hair shirts for the entire 40 days. Those shirts were sprinkled with the ashes from burned palms left over from Palm Sunday. For them, the focus was on penitence, of thinking about and trying to make up for our sins.
In modern times, the focus of Lent seems to have shifted to one of self-denial. Most Christians I know give up something for Lent. In fact, I came across an article on the internet entitled “The top 5 things people give up for Lent.” Number one? Chocolate – followed by cigarettes, alcohol, Facebook, television, and junk food. I suspect that most of us have given up at least one of those things for Lent in the past – I know I have. And that’s fine – but why do we do it? The reasoning I grew up with was this: if you fast or give up something, every time you miss it, you think of Jesus and his much greater sacrifice for us. If we’re hungry and tired after fasting for one day, think how much Jesus suffered during his 40 day fast. This makes sense – and probably works for most of us – but it still doesn’t tell us how to choose what to give up. And here’s the problem with it: I suspect that the things we give up for Lent are things that we think we should do anyway, but need something to motivate us. For many of us, they are leftover New Year’s resolutions that we have already given up on. I have actually said, “I can’t do it for vanity, or for my health, but I can do it for God.” Like God cares if I eat chocolate. I’m sure there are many people who use the tradition of giving up something to become closer to God – but I’m also sure that for many of us giving up something is more of an exercise of willpower than a path to spiritual growth.
It might help to remember that today’s lectionary readings start with Joel, but do not end there. We also hear from Paul and Jesus about what it means to give up something. For Paul, it’s about belief, about continuing believe in Jesus the Christ despite trials and hardships. Notice he doesn’t suggest we go out and find ways to suffer for our faith. Rather, he tells us that in all things, we need to remember that God is present, and that when we suffer for doing the right thing, we do not do so in vain. Jesus goes one step further. He tells us that that what really matters is our relationship with God. For Jesus, it’s not about doing what we think is prescribed by the church or tradition. What really matters is that whatever we do is between us and God –no one else, and whatever we do, it brings us closer to God.
A few years ago I decided to try “taking on” something in addition to giving something up. I will admit that it’s often something that I am working on anyway - but it’s also often harder than giving up something because it requires thinking – and praying. It requires me to lean on God to do it – and it provides a sense of love and hope that giving up chocolate never could. Jesus tells us not to be dismal and cranky during Lent. God does not want us to fast if fasting separates us from one another and from God. Paul tells us that an acceptable fast is not about giving up – it’s about giving – and it’s about joy. A wise friend of my recently told me that her new credo is “joy every day.” She said, “I have to remember that it’s not about weight or exercise or being too busy or anything else. It’s about finding joy every day.”
This Lent I encourage you to find joy every day: to use this time to draw nearer to one another and to our God. Give something up if it helps you to do this – but remember to give something out too. “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. He will not always accuse us, nor will he keep his anger forever.” Don’t worry. Be happy. Lent is here. Amen.