As I seek to learn more about Lenten traditions, I’ve come across quite a few people who disparage the giving up of food for Lent. It’s not enough, they proclaim. Chocolate? Coffee? Dessert? A Meal?
Paltry. Do something big for God.
To an extent they’re right. These small sacrifices are, indeed, small. They pale in comparison to Christ’s glorious suffering on our behalf.
But the bemoaners of the ascetic fast make me wonder if they’ve ever really tried it.
Yes, giving up something like dessert when you don’t really have issues with dessert probably is paltry. I agree wholeheartedly with the advice Matt Kennedy gives on what to do for Lent, “In other words, your Lenten discipline should not be arbitrary. If you have a problem with lust, don’t give up chocolate. Give up whatever it is that leads you into lustful behavior. And don’t just give it up for Lent, use Lent to give it up forever. Let the Lord know that you are committed to turning from the sin he has shown you and then ask him to help you in your task though the power of his Holy Spirit.”
But personally, every Lent when I have chosen something related to eating and drinking for the Fast, it has hit me right where it hurts. When I remove one of those little comforts, those easy over-the-counter panaceas, it doesn’t take long for my sin to flare. While I wouldn’t usually say I have a problem with anger, impatience, or bitterness, take away my morning coffee, (or X, Y or Z) and I do.
This leads me to justify my misbehavior:
These sins aren’t real, I’m the victim of my circumstances.
At other times, I begin the mental gymnastic:
Coffee, chocolate, dessert, whatever it may be…, these are gifts from God, He knows I’m weak that’s why He created these things, why am I taking it upon myself to question this?!
But in the silence of Lent, I hear His Voice:
Pray. Be still. Take up your Cross. Follow Me.
I am led to remember His Life as recorded in the Gospels:
His forty days of prayer and fasting. His times alone for prayer. And I know I am called to follow at all costs.
The conviction of Scripture begins to speak to my quick and shrill tongue:
“You, Amy, are one of the brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34).
And I am humbled when I usually would have reached for… another cup of coffee, leftovers from the fridge, my hidden stash of chocolate.
The arguments stop. I give in. I’m weak. I’m a sinner. I need His Grace. I learn again that I can’t do Lent in my own strength. It seems that if I want to do the Big Things, I need to get a hold of the small things first. And the tradition has seen that it is through our stomachs, we can quickly get to our hearts.
I wrote at the beginning of Lent of my longing to be covered in the whiteness of an undivided heart (Psalm 86:11) just as the snow had blanketed our little street and our little home with a unity and cleanness.
But one week into Lent and I already know, that in that initial request, I didn’t see my real need. What I wanted then, was a quick cure for sin, instant sanctification.
One week into Lent, giving up those easy comforts, attempting more time in silence and prayer, and the sin bleeds dark from beneath that white covering.
And so, I disagree when I hear on Ash Wednesday a local preacher (not from my home church), “Fasting makes me cranky, so I don’t do it.” There is a reason the Church has fasted from food during Lent—that crankiness might be the very reason.
We are human, dependent and finite. In Lent we don’t just hear the words “You are dust and to dust you will return,” we enter into practices which make that truth inescapable. And we are then faced with a choice, in our dependency and finitude will we feed on the Bread of Life and Drink of the Everlasting Water or will we placate our sins by running off to do the Big Things? “Fasting reminds us that we are sustained “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Food does not sustain us. God sustains us…Therefore, in experiences of fasting we are not so much abstaining from food as we are feasting on the word of God. Fasting is feasting.” (Foster p. 55)
I want to do BIG THINGS for God. But, so far, He’s only asked me to take lessons in the School of Nazareth, the world of the small. And He is teaching me that I need to rethink what it means to serve Him as John Milton writes in the poem where he questions how will He do God’s work now that he is blind and receives the answer,
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
For centuries, Lent has been a season of fasting and penitence. We join with countless others [Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, Paul, Jesus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards….] who’ve wanted to renew their repentance and faith “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word” (The Book of Common Prayer). How this quite looks will be different for each of us, but the tradition is clear.
May we bear His mild yoke, trusting in His Kingly State, allowing His work to be done.