By Michael Redmond
Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of the body. Let the hands fast, by being free of greed. Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast, by not taking delight in lustful gazing. Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip. Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.
~ St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, 4th century
As Christians have done for a thousand years, many of us took time from our busy lives on Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of Lent. We pray penitential psalms, we confess our sins, and we receive the Imposition of Ashes with a sobering admonition: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).
The Imposition of Ashes was formalized as a rite throughout Western Europe in the late 11th century, but the practice goes back many centuries beforehand. Its roots are solidly biblical (2 Sam. 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Dan. 9:3, and Matt. 11:21), as are those of the other practice most closely associated with Lent, fasting. The historian Eusebius reports that the church was using ashes as a sign of repentance and grief in the early 4th century, when Christianity was barely legal — and the practice wasn’t new then.
Why do we keep Lent? Where do Lenten traditions come from, and what do they teach us?
Lent is the season of preparation for Holy Week, the anchor of the liturgical year, in which we solemnly remember the Lord’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Last Supper and the Institution of the Holy Eucharist (Maundy Thursday), and His Passion and Death (Good Friday and Holy Saturday). This culminates in the celebration of the feast of feasts, the Resurrection (Easter Sunday). Lent prepares us for a journey with Christ, and Holy Week takes us on that journey. The Day of Resurrection is the destination. Easter is the new day, the new season, and, in a sense, the new creation.
The basic Holy Week traditions we know today are thought to have originated within the Church of Jerusalem, not surprisingly, where the Christian community believed they knew the actual sites where the sacred events had taken place. It’s likely that Holy Week liturgies and many of its pious customs were codified during the episcopacy of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+AD 386). In a detailed account of her pilgrimage to Jerusalem around St. Cyril’s time, a woman named Egeria speaks of the processions and services by which the Christian community followed in the footsteps of Christ over the course of Holy Week. Historians believe that the Church of Jerusalem’s traditions eventually provided the pattern for Holy Week and Easter liturgies throughout the entire one, holy catholic and apostolic church of the early centuries, adapted to local customs and conditions.
Before we undertake an important journey, most people prepare. Think of Lent as the preparation for a singular encounter with the Lord Jesus in the climax of His mission. Imagine joining the apostles and disciples as witnesses during the most grim and glorious week of Christ’s life. Think of yourself as pursuing inwardly an anamnesis, a Greek word that literally means an un-forgetting, by making present that which is past.
How do we prepare to do this? By repentance from self-centeredness and sin, for starters. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for repentance is metanoia, which literally means a change of mind. That’s what the church means by repentance — the embrace of a new or renewed understanding. Maybe we’ve been distracted by the tasks and challenges of our daily lives. Maybe we’ve slacked off, spiritually, for all sorts of reasons, or fallen into a rut. Lent is a time to change our minds, to re-focus our minds and hearts on God and His saving work in Jesus Christ.
But the complete human being is more than mind and heart. We are also bodies. So now we consider the ancient Lenten traditions about which our Reformation forebears were decidedly ambivalent— the ascetic traditions, such as fasting and abstinence, self-denial, “giving up something for Lent.” The Reformers were deeply concerned that Christians were understanding such practices wrongly, as somehow buying or earning God’s grace and favor, which are freely given, because that’s who God is. Yet the tradition of penitential fasting is everywhere in Holy Scripture. Jesus Himself acknowledges it (Matt. 6:16), and He practiced it (Matt. 4, Luke 4). Central to Lent is the story of the Lord’s 40-day fast while on retreat in the desert, culminating in His epic confrontation with Satan.
Ascetic is yet another Greek-derived word, from askesis This topic may sound weird, even scary, but all askesis means is exercise or training. It means exactly what people do when they go to the gym — and it’s noteworthy that few people today would dispute that diet is intimately linked with health, strength, and vigor. In Lent some of us choose to abstain from something we enjoy (food, drink, entertainment) in honor of Christ’s sacrifice and to train ourselves to say “no” to our desires and appetites. We’re building our spiritual muscle, so to speak, so that the next time we are seriously tempted, it’s easier to say “no” to the enticements of “the world, the flesh and the devil.”
On the formal level, however, fasting and abstinence are not the same thing. Fasting has to do with the entire diet, not just some specific thing we’re abstaining from. Traditionally, fasting means limiting the amount of food we eat every day, sometimes to one full meal in the evening, and eliminating some foods altogether, especially meat. The ancient monastic fast, which is still observed as best they can by conscientious Eastern Orthodox laity, excludes meat, fish, eggs, dairy, olive oil and alcohol. What’s left, then, to live on? Grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruit. And no marital relations, either, by the way.
So this is how we’re called to keep Lent? Well, absolutely not, unless we choose to. In the Anglican and Reformed traditions, fasting at some level of commitment is advised and encouraged, particularly on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday [p. 17 of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP)], but fasting and abstinence remain strictly optional and voluntary practices at any time. If The Episcopal Church has any official rules and regulations governing these practices, I’ve never come across them. The BCP does not even define the word fast. What is commonly meant is abstinence from meat. That’s something we can all do for two days a year if the Spirit leads us.
Although Christians are not commanded to take up severe ascetical practices, we are all called to “deny ourselves and follow Him” (Matt. 16:24). We can do this during Lent by fasting and abstinence, by giving up some pleasure or entertainment for a time, by taking any savings we derive by moderating our lifestyle and giving the proceeds to the needy, by getting serious about self-examination, and by adopting a special Lenten discipline, such as increasing our prayer and scripture time.
And which is more difficult? Passing up that cheeseburger or seeking out that neighbor we’re alienated from and seeking to renew the relationship? Can we practice self-denial by swallowing our pride and accepting the apology that was never offered? Is it so hard not to watch that movie and instead spend the time reading that book the rector has been recommending? Can we volunteer some time and talent to the parish or to our community?
The point of keeping Lent is not to take on heavy burdens, but to dedicate ourselves to doing something special, or to doing more of what we already do. The point is to push ourselves a little, at least. The point is to get ourselves ready to meet the Lord … in Jerusalem.