Our Part in Lent
What does Lent mean for me? How does the “why” of Lent connect with my “why”? How does the purpose of Lent connect with my purpose? This is a personal question, different for each family, and for each member within a family.
In other words, how can I grow closer to God? How can I trust God more? How can I be in daily conversation through prayer? How can I depend on God for all that I need? To sum it up, how can I grow spiritually, by God’s grace? There are a trio of habits on the short list of ways to grow spiritually, according to Jesus and the witness of the church.
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, gives guidance about this trio of spiritual habits: giving, praying, and fasting. Jesus doesn’t offer a religious to-do list; he assumes the importance of the three habits, and he gives guidance about how to approach them in a life-giving way. Let’s listen to what Jesus has to say about each of them:
“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. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. 14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6.1-18)
It’s all about the “how,” according to Jesus. Praying just to check the box, or to look religious to others—has no place in Jesus’ kingdom. Praying has nothing to do with looking good, doing good, being good, or meriting God’s favor in any way. Prayer is important because it’s how we can talk to God. The same with giving alms, and with fasting. Habits are meant to draw us closer to God—for the good of the relationship.
Throughout church history, the habit of fasting has been closely associated with Lent. Irenaeus of Lyon, early church father from the 2nd century, wrote a letter describing a 2-3 day fast to prepare for Easter. Even before the season of Lent was established in 325 CE by the Council of Nicaea, there was the habit of fasting in preparation for Easter.
Fasting means abstaining, partially or completely, from food and/or water. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness before his ministry began. He held onto this promise from Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.4, quoting Deuteronomy 8.3)
In the early church, fasting meant eating only one meal a day in the evening, and abstaining from meat, fish, eggs, and butter. In the Eastern or Orthodox church, they also abstain from wine, oil, and dairy.
This long-standing tradition of fasting is where our habit of “giving up something for Lent” comes from. Fasting is a way to show that you’re sorry (remember the Ninevites who repented in sackcloth and ashes, with fasting?), that you need God, and that you commit yourself to following Jesus.
We’ve looked at Jesus’ own guidance for how to grow spiritually, from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. And we’ve looked to the tradition of fasting during Lent throughout church history, which brings us to the present.
How do you want to keep Lent? By giving? Praying? Fasting? I encourage you to choose a small habit, one that you can practice each day, as a reminder, a touchstone, that God is God.
Did I lose some of you when I started talking about fasting? Are you ready for a snack about now? I have very little experience fasting myself, to be honest with you. And the one day I fasted I will always remember—I can still recall the hunger, persistent and nagging, until it finally went away. And what remained was peace and assurance—that God will give me what I need for the day.
Now one more note about fasting: you can fast from more than food. You can fast from any habit that isn’t serving you or God. You can fast from complaining, fighting with your sibling, playing video games, zoning out maybe on social media…
Fasting really isn’t ultimately about food or abstaining. It’s about removing obstacles so you can focus on God and God’s providential care for you. Think about your life, and the life of your family. What’s getting in the way between your truest self and your connection with God? Giving, praying, and fasting are all ways to reconnect with the living God.
Again, back to our question, what might be your part in observing this season of Lent? How do you want to keep the season of Lent?
Let us pray.
You are immortal and invisible,
As close to us as our very breath.
Yet we confess that we feel far from you,
Maybe even disconnected or cut off.
Draw us closer to you,
By your grace and through practicing spiritual habits,
That we might feel your love and power,
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, world without end, Amen.