Fasting for Lent

How do you observe Lent?

In the Anglican church, it is common to hear someone ask, “What are you doing for Lent?” The answers are a mixture of giving something up and taking on something new. You often hear things like:

“I am giving up chocolate for Lent.”

or “I am cutting back on alcohol.”

or “I am going to read the Bible more.”

or “I am going to volunteer at the soup kitchen.”

The question often arises, why do we fast and take on disciplines for Lent? Is there something earth shattering about giving up chocolate? The answer is no. So why do it? Here are four simple but profound reasons.

Fasting for Obedience

1) The first reason is that Jesus asks us to do these things (see Matthew 6:1-18). It is about obedience. Of course, he doesn’t specifically ask for chocolate. That is not the point. Rather, it is part of a three-fold challenge from Jesus that gives focus to Lent. It is traditionally listed as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

These are meant to be serious practices, but not legalistic ones. Jesus wants us to pray because prayer is the language of our relationship with God. It is how we grow closer to God. Jesus wants us to fast because fasting allows us to find freedom from unhealthy habits. And Jesus wants us to give alms because it is an expression of care and compassion for people in need, and we need to practice doing that. Giving up chocolate or alcohol or whatever is an expression of fasting and doing without, not for its own sake, but for education and healing.

Learning through Fasting for Lent

2) Fasting is partly about learning. I don’t mean about facts, but about deep inner truths. It helps us realize that many people live in poverty and will never have what we are struggling to do without. We grow in humility as we see that we can do with less than we think we need, and that we have resources that can be used to help others.

In the book of Isaiah, fasting is closely connected with justice. The prophet criticizes those who fast and do other religious rituals, while simultaneously perpetuating injustice. He writes, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry…?” (Isaiah 48: 6-7a). Part of the purpose of fasting is to help us develop a heart of compassion, which leads to generosity of spirit.

Fasting for Reflection and Growth

3) Fasting for Lent also teaches us something important about our inner life: we need heart healing. This is Jesus’ main goal. He calls us to fast because he wants us to grow deeper in maturity. The problem is that we have many unhealthy habits and attachments in our lives. For instance, let’s say I fast from all sugar during Lent. It doesn’t seem big. But the reality is that I would find that hard. I am used to quite a bit of sugar in my diet. Therefore, when I find it hard, I need to ask myself, why? What am I learning about myself? What am I learning about what I serve?

Now let’s imagine that it is so hard that I find myself getting irritated at my kids or wife. Again, I need to really think about this. What is it within me that is struggling? This should be easy: just stop eating sugar. But why don’t I have the patience and strength?

In truth, it is not easy. And this is the point. We don’t mature and grow unless we push beyond what is comfortable. If everything is comfortable, we stagnate. Giving up chocolate or alcohol–or whatever–amounts to putting controlled spiritual and emotional stress on our lives. This is partly so that we can push through it. But the real reason is that it gives us a glimpse into our souls and shows us we need healing.

Fasting for Lent for Healing

4) Healing is the point. God is nothing but love, and looks with compassion on our struggles. God wants to heal our souls, and this doesn’t happen quickly. The New Testament doesn’t distinguish heart, soul and mind in the same way we do. They are a whole, and inside are a mixture of positive and negative emotions, impulses and drives. There is compassion, hospitality, courage, love, and a host of other good stuff. There is also anger, fear, lust, unhealthy hungers, violence, prejudices, and a host of other bad stuff. They are all mixed up together.

Part of the Good News is that Christ came to bring healing and wholeness to human beings. He brings grace, mercy, and love to transform our hard hearts into soft hearts. This is neither a simple nor a quick process.

We tend to hide our hurt, pain, and negative emotions. But if we bring them into the gentle light of Christ with honesty and humility, he will heal them over time. Sometimes we need to do this soul work with another person guiding us, be it a spiritual mentor or a psychologist.

Fasting for Lent helps us to find the areas of hardness in our hearts by surfacing what needs the most healing. The next step is to pray for God to heal those places. Spend time in prayer for your inner being. God wants to birth within you a new creation. This is the deeper meaning of fasting.

The Many Layers of Candlemas Day

Simeon with the Infant Jesus (Benjamin West, c. 1796)

February 2nd is the feast of Candlemas. I love this celebration because it is beautifully multi-layered and complex.

On Candlemas day, we celebrate the story of the baby Jesus being presented in the temple forty days after his birth. (If you want to read the story, you can find it in Luke 2:22-38.) There is a touching moment when an elderly man named Simeon shows up to hold and bless the child. He has lived a very long time, holding to a promise given to him that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. In this moment is the meeting of the Old Testament and the New Testament. Because of this event, February 2nd is first called the Presentation of the Lord.

The Cradle and the Cross Meet on Candlemas Day

There is another layer. According to the ancient law of Israel, woman underwent a ceremony of purification after the birth of their child. And so we have the story of Mary coming to the temple to offer her sacrifice to God. The day is also about Mary as mother of the Christ. In fact, the story foreshadows the pain that Mary will suffer as she will later watch her son die on the cross. The end is linked to the beginning. For this reason, February 2nd is also called The Purification of Mary.

Looking Forward with Hope

Then there is another layer. When Simeon is holding the baby Jesus, he praises God. Part of his song of praise says that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32) This image of Christ as light is central to Christian worship. It is why we light candles. They are a sign that the light of Christ burns brightly in the midst of suffering and division. When we get to the liturgical celebration of the Great Vigil of Easter, the Paschal (Easter) candle is processed to the front of the church while we loudly chant the proclamation: “The light of Christ! Thanks be to God!” Because of this image of light coming into the world to enlighten us, churches bless candles on February 2nd to use for the coming year. This is why the day is also called Candlemas.

There is yet another layer. The church calendar also gives us connections to the yearly solar calendar that organizes our lives. Candlemas day falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is the time of the year in which the days become noticeably longer. I am also told that it is the time of year when the sap begins to run in the trees. Therefore, as we celebrate this feast, we rejoice in the natural turn of the year as the days begin to brighten. It helps us understand that the world of nature itself teaches us deep truths about the love and grace of God.

The Heart of Christianity

On Palm Sunday, we read a story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem and people waving palms and shouting Hosanna! I want to get back to basics and look at why we are stopping here to read this story: it is about the heart of our Christian faith.

And what is that? The heart of Christianity is a personal, living relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Unseen but real, God is a creative, dynamic, living force who is in and through and behind all things. But more than a force, God is a presence. More than a presence, God is a person, a father who radiates life. God is the source of all we call love and goodness. And God wants to be in relationship with us. This relationship is life giving, dynamic, powerful. God has made us for relationship with God and each other.

The Bible doesn’t use the word relationship because that is a modern catch-all word. The Bible uses words like faith (our relationship with God), prayer (our language of talking and listening to God), assembly, and communion (the Bible’s words for our relationship to each other, rooted in God.)

How Messy Can This Get?

The problem is that we have an immense capacity to mess things up. We turn relationship into power, jealousy, and self-centered advantage. We have inhumanity within our humanity. In some ways, history is a long story of domination, power politics, and oppression. None of that is of God. 

Jesus: Healer, Saviour, Restorer

This is where the Gospel comes in. The Gospel is the good news that God intends to restore the human heart to its fully beautiful humanity. In this way, God restores human communities to being vibrant groups of creative, loving individuals who are compassionate and passionate. The Gospel is the good news that in Jesus, God has started a long process of rescue and healing from corruption.

The biblical word for this process is salvation. When we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are praying for God’s salvation to be made real in our lives and our world through Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God is wherever we live out God’s will and purposes. It proclaims that all people are the children of God, for in God’s kingdom there is no slave or free, there is no Jew or Gentile, there is no male or female. (Galatians 3:28)

Never Forget

This is why set aside time during Holy Week to tell the story of how God rescues the human heart and all creation. Holy week is the story of how God moves heaven and earth to restore us and the world. This is not through violent overthrow, but through the most surprising and profound act of sacrificial love ever.

It is so profound that ancient Christians set it at the centre of the church year to make sure we will never forget. So every year we take this week to walk the path of the cross. We feel the warmth of the last supper and experience the pain of Jesus’ betrayal. We weep to see our beloved Jesus beaten. Our heart breaks when he dies so cruelly on the cross. Never in all of human history did we expect that God would come as a human being and sacrifice himself out of love for humanity.

Please take this time in Holy Week to remember the great love of God poured out in Jesus… and give thanks.