In many Christian faiths it is traditional to prepare for Easter, the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection from death, by committing to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penance for 6 weeks prior to Easter. This 6 weeks approximates the 40 days of fasting and suffering in the wilderness that the Lord endured while being tempted by the evil one. The suffering we endure in fasting or otherwise withholding ourselves from certain luxuries is meant to bring to our mind the Lord’s suffering and temptations.
While the Lord doesn’t call us to fast or otherwise deprive ourselves as a specific religious practice in the same we that He instructs us concerning prayer (Matthew 6:5), He does acknowledge the practice and even encourage the practice but with modification and greater intentionality.
“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” ~ Matthew 6:16-18
Lenten celebrations today are often preceded by more than a little overindulgence best exemplified by Rio de Janeiro’s carnival. Even in everyday conversations you may have heard one or two people commenting on the things they will be denying themselves during the Lenten season and, I’m sure, many people find value in this practice. I have noted, however, that there is often a problem that arrises when well thought out spiritual practices reach the level of cultural observations. The problem becomes one of the physical practice being mistaken for the actual spiritual practice. This, the Lord warns us about even in our weekly worship. The Lord teaches that “There is an inner church and there is an outer church. There is inner worship and there is outer worship. What lies within our worship is what determines what kind of worship it is. Outward worship without inner worship is no worship at all. We are engaged in true worship when we are devoted to love and caring—that is, when we are devoted to doing what is good in our daily lives” (New Jerusalem 129).
When what was meant to be a spiritual and internal practice becomes a cultural and external observance then our self-denial takes on a decidedly useless quality. By simply giving ourselves permission to return to our indulgent ways once the “season” passes with little real effect on our spiritual lives we risk making the practice a purely external one. If self-denial should be our focus during Lent then we really should choose something worth giving up, something that the absence of will make a marked improvement in our lives. We should also not make Easter a day to return to our old evils. The joy we seek should not be that of a return to self-indulgence but the joy of deliverance from it. Maybe, instead of looking at what we will give up we should look at what we will pick up. What healthy practice of service in the Lord’s kingdom can we begin that will turn Lent into an affirmative observation? Then, when Easter comes, we will be far less likely to return to our old ways as we may just developed a new love for serving the Lord. Then, maybe we will hear the words of the Lord: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant…Enter into the joy of your lord’ (Matthew 25:21).