A Good Question: What is Lent for?
One question, four answers
‘We grow more like Jesus’
Lent is a period of 40 days, in which Christians prepare themselves for Holy Week and Easter – for the betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, which is the day Jesus spent in the tomb until the resurrection dawn.
The word Lent has roots in Old English words for spring. So, as we observe the natural world beginning to come to life again, full of the promise of summer growth and sunshine, we take the time to look at what is growing in our own lives, and ‘garden’ our own growth as children of God, sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ.
That is why Lent has traditionally been a time for fasting and prayer: we are ‘weeding out’ the kind of growth that is likely to stunt and smother the flowers and fruit we long to see in our lives as disciples of Christ. And part of the challenge, of course, is to work out which are the weeds and which are the flowers. To do this, we need to focus on Jesus. …
Jane Williams is Assistant Dean of St Mellitus College, London, and author of The Merciful Humility of God: The 2019 Lent Book published by Bloomsbury
‘Deepen your relationship with God’
Lent starts confusingly with a reading from Matthew on Ash Wednesday: ‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.’ How striking that in that service, millions will mark their faces in ashes and begin 40 days of ritual fasting!
The confusion continues as the season unfolds almost sombrely. The tone of Lent worship is often quiet, penitent and dark. All the while, the days get longer, the temperatures get warmer and the earth begins to bloom. The emotion of our worship doesn’t match the excitement of springtime.
But perhaps the most confusing aspect of Lent is the widespread practice of giving something up – chiefly food. It was striking that Lent begins this year straight after Eating Disorders Awareness Week. While Christians lament all the foods they sacrificed this year, what will the millions who struggle with eating disorders hear? And what does fasting teach us about God and the Christian life? Back in the 16th century, Martin Luther was already sceptical about this Lenten practice. He wrote: ‘Lent has become mere mockery because our fasting is a perversion and an institution of man. For although Christ did fast 40 days, yet there is no word of his that he requires us to do the same and fast as he did… we should see to it that we have his word to support our actions.’ …
Joseph Natwick is Associate Pastor of St John Lutheran Church, Dickinson, North Dakota
‘How to say: “No, not yet”’
The longstanding tradition of fasting during Lent – denying yourself something that is good but not essential, such as chocolate, alcohol or social media – strikes some people as bizarre today. In fact, it has perhaps never been more relevant.
Our modern culture is fixated not simply on having things, but on having them now. Advertisements encourage us not to save but to buy on credit and have what we want immediately. We don’t do waiting anymore. We have instant food, instant messaging and instant downloads. Whether it is food, pleasure or possessions, we expect to have it now.
There is something very dangerous about this demand for instant gratification and it’s not just Christians who say so. The reality is that all good things are at their best when we have them at the right time. Intentionally delaying a pleasure (and that’s what fasting in Lent is all about) is a wise thing. The ability to postpone gratification is critical to making us fulfilled human beings. After all, if we want our pleasures now, we are going to struggle with things like learning to play the piano or acquiring a foreign language…
J John is Honorary Canon of Coventry Cathedral and founder of the Philo Trust
‘What will it achieve?’
I’ve long been wary about the idea of ‘giving something up’ for Lent because I’ve heard too many people say something like: ‘I’m giving up biscuits because I need to lose weight.’ It’s all too easy to complicate Lent with our own motives, so if we do want to engage in a Lent discipline I think we must also reflect prayerfully and carefully. Like many, I struggle with the biblical accounts of so much animal sacrifice but two things about the theology of sacrifice help me. First, is what I am giving up costly to me? It would cost me nothing to give up cake because I can’t eat it anyway, but it would not be easy to give up caffeine – even so, I’d challenge my own motives for doing that. What will it achieve? Sacrifice also needs to be genuinely pleasing to God. The book of Malachi is a critique of trying to offer to God what is unfit, an encouragement for us, I think, to take our ‘sacrificing’ very seriously.
I also don’t find it helpful to focus on what I’m not doing. Part of our Sunday lectionary journey will be remembering Jesus’ time in the wilderness, but Jesus didn’t go there for the purpose of privation as an end in itself. The Spirit cast him into a time of heart and soul searching about his vocation. This is something that both individuals and churches should be doing – giving up something that takes time (rather than cutting back on calories, say) and offering that time to one another and to God to ask: ‘What is God calling me/us to right now?’ …
Rosalind Selby is Principal of Northern College, Manchester
These are extracts from an article that was published in the March 2019 edition of Reform