~by Pastor Mike Middaugh
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the 40 day (not including Sundays) observance of Lent. This season, and its practices, can seem a bit disjointed or confusing. Some people fast, in one way or another, foregoing some normal vice, such as social media, sweets, or perhaps, swearing. Others may choose to take on a new endeavor like regular exercise, praying daily, or serving at a food bank. But on their own, these practices may feel more like New Year’s resolutions, than spiritual observances. So, what is the reason behind Lent, and its customs, and how might we make use of them today?
When it comes to spiritual practices, Scripture can sometimes seem to contradict itself. In Psalm 35 David speaks of fasting as a form of petition and prayer:
Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting. Lord, you have seen this; do not be silent. Do not be far from me, Lord. (Ps. 35:13, 22)
And we know that in the New Testament Jesus himself spent time in fasting and prayer in the wilderness for 40 days (Matthew 4), and at other times.
But then, Scripture also gives admonition and warning about certain things that may not be helpful:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Rather, is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
So what do we make of all this?
Historically, God’s people have incorporated into their lives spiritual practices meant to help them reflect on their own shortcoming, and seek God’s forgiveness and mercy. However, at times these practices have become a means for boasting or selfish pride. There were those in Jesus day who prayed loudly and publicly for all to hear. Others bragged about their own fasting, and became prideful because of their open display of faithfulness.
As the early church began to spread after Jesus ascension, some of these spiritual practices were incorporated into the life of the Church. Lent developed as a season of teaching and instruction leading up to Easter. During Easter Vigil, the Saturday of Easter weekend, new members were often welcomed into the church after they had gone through the special season of preparation which may have included extra time in prayer, fasting, repentance, and other spiritual endeavors.
Today, it would do us well to see Lent as more than just a hodgepodge of ritual and tradition. It remains one of the most powerful seasons of the church year for understanding God’s plan of salvation. During Lent we repent of sin, recognizing our need for salvation. As we enter into Holy Week we see again all that Jesus has done, as teacher, Lord, and ultimately, the savior willing to give his own life for his people. And on Easter we celebrate the victory over death that is the resurrection, Jesus’ greatest work.
During this season we may engage in special practices – prayer, fasting, going without, etc. But these things serve no purpose if they stand alone (and certainly will not help us if they turn into sources of pride.) But doing something different during this season may be a tool to help you remember to connect with God, to be more aware of his grace and goodness, and to recognize how much we already have in our lives and the difference between needs and wants.
As we enter the season of Lent I pray that you may find a deeper sense of connectedness to God, and a more profound understanding of the grace we find in Jesus.
And finally, just for fun, I’ll also share this story which I have shared before, of 17th century German monks who created doppelbock beer to sustain them during their fast of Lent, and a guy in Iowa who recently decided to restore the practice.