“Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!
Ask Andrew: Lent
Why do United Church members not give up something important for Lent?
The short answer to this question is: some do!
Okay, there is a tradition of giving up chocolate for Lent. That suggests we’re treating it like a New Years Resolution with less commitment (40 days instead of a year or a lifetime). Actually, we treat this as a very individual thing, and some people do consider carefully what they are giving up and try to give up something that is significant for some reason.
Originally, Lent was not this individualistic at all. It was the main Christian season of fasting. It was not like the Muslims, where they don’t eat between sunrise & sunset. Rather, it was a time of reduced rations of all sorts for everyone: typically no meat, no fresh baking, and people who lived in Northern Europe lived on root vegetables for the seasons (and this was before potatoes were brought in from the New World.)
To be fair, you are never supposed to fast on a Sunday. Sunday is always a little Easter, a feast day, just like Friday is always a little Good Friday, a fast day (I am old enough to remember when most of Quebec ate fish on Fridays because of this). So the 40 days of Lent don’t include Sundays.
Historically, this was partly practical. Lent happens at the time of year when supplies started to run out. Everyone needed to make sure the food supplies survived until the first crops were in. Rich and poor alike were in much the same boat.
Lenten fasting was a communal activity. The whole community was supposed to reflect on their spiritual condition, on their need for salvation. The church used the time to get everyone really primed for Easter and the gift of hope and new life.
The church discovered a nice parallel with the 40 years that Israel wandered in the wilderness before entering the promised land. Those years really shaped the community. The time transformed them from runaway slaves into a community able to move in and occupy a country. Since the 1980s the church has really liked that parallel. Lots of Exodus readings are recommended for this season so we can make that parallel with the spiritual journey of our modern community.
More commonly, though we’ve turned it into a kind of individual, personal spiritual test. “Can I make it another day without chocolate?” “Yes, I can be strong!” It is like we use Lent to gauge our own personal moral character.
Really, the inspiration for the 40 days comes from Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. That was certainly a personal time for him, and in the wilderness he certainly went without most kinds of food (raw lizard, anyone?) and other necessities.
Before people get too literalistic, we should remember that 40 days, like 40 years, is an important symbolic number in scripture. 40 anything means a very long time.
The first chapter of Mark’s gospel gives us the oldest version of this story. Mark doesn’t mention details about temptations, just that he was tempted. This reading gives us a much clearer sense that Jesus was driven into the wilderness by God’s Spirit, and that he did what religious leaders do in such a time: he struggled with his calling. He assessed his life and how it needed to change if he was going to be able to live out that call he received at his baptism. How tempting might it have been to simply go back to carpentry and avoid this dangerous ministry ahead?
What better place to listen for God’s voice or inspiration than in the wilderness? Imagine being there, surrounded by creation, seeing the naked, star-strewn sky at night, with nothing between you and infinity. You would face a lack of food and water, the predators that lived in the wilderness, and you would face a pressing need to trust God to get you out of this alive.
Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was his time to come face to face with his existence; to meet his creator where there were no other voices to distract. He took stock of his life in a place where lying to yourself will get you killed, and he re-shaped himself for the time ahead.
If we are going to be individual about Lent then let’s stop worrying about the self-denial test that it has become. Let’s make it what it can be: an opportunity to examine our lives; a time to consider the value of what we do; a time to evaluate what’s important & what’s not; what parts of our lives deserve more time and attention & and what needs to be jettisoned.
Maybe this time before Good Friday and Easter is the best time to ask the question: “if my life is so important that Jesus died for me, what am I doing with my life to make God pleased with me?”
That kind of reflection doesn’t have to be merely personal. We can ask it as a congregation, as a community of faith.
What are we doing that will make our Creator happy?