Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Traditionally we begin a time of fasting, or abstinence, from certain things. For Catholics, of course, there are the meatless Fridays, but for many Christians Lent is a time of giving something up. But the point is not simply to deprive yourself, the point is to set aside one thing and replace it with something more important. In other words, fasting is not just asceticism for the sake of asceticism. Ideally, one fasts to remove an obstacle to focusing one’s attention on God – it’s a reality check, a time to reorient one’s priorities – maybe even to reboot and start fresh.
But here’s my problem. I don’t know about you, but fasting just makes me focus on my stomach, and I find it becomes harder to focus on God. Or I focus on the clock, counting the minutes until I can eat something. Even after all these years as a practicing Christian, I have yet to master the art of fasting.
I like what some early Christian writers said, that when we fast, we should skip a meal, set aside the money saved, and give that money to the hungry (Hermas, The Shepherd 56; Didascalia 19). In fact, some of the early Christian documents say that giving the money is more important than the fasting. It’s actually surprising how often in the early Church almsgiving is held up as a form of penance that “relieves the burden of sin” (II Clement 16). Other early documents say forget the fasting altogether and just abstain from sin (cf. Hermas, The Shepherd 54.4).
Oh, if only it were that easy. Actually, I like the idea of almsgiving as a form of penance. But I worry that it’s too easy. We all know what happened when the concept of almsgiving as penance was abused – it led to the sale of indulgences, when some people believed they could buy God’s forgiveness for themselves, or others. So I want to be careful I don’t fall into the temptation of taking the easy way out: just write a check, and I’ll “feel good about myself.” But on the other hand I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, either. I want to reclaim the early Christian conviction that almsgiving is a legitimate form of fasting – after all, I’m giving something up for Lent – my money.
Of course, I will still try to fast from meat on Fridays. However (confession time…), I don’t think I’ve ever made it all the way through Lent. I get a few weeks in and one day I realize halfway through a turkey sandwich that it’s Friday.
So here I sit on Ash Wednesday, still undecided about how I want to observe Lent this year. Like every year, I want to do something (not just refrain from doing something). I’m very realistic about my own shortcomings, so I fully admit that I need to do some soul searching, confront my own sinfulness, and get down to some repentance. And on the positive side of that coin, I’m very grateful for God’s forgiveness and grace – and acknowledging my imperfections only heightens that sense of gratitude. So, as I do every year at this time, I rack my brain to try to figure out what I can do to really express that gratitude to God. As I think about it it’s almost as though I need to celebrate in some way.
I know that sounds strange, and I don’t mean celebrate by going to New Orleans, getting drunk, and dancing half naked in the streets of the French Quarter. I mean celebrate in the way that a Christian funeral is a celebration. It’s part mourning and part thanksgiving.
Maybe that’s what Lent is to me. It’s the funeral of the liturgical year, when I mourn the ways I’ve disappointed my Creator. I give thanks for life and blessings while regretting the missed opportunities. Then Easter is the opposite – a kind of birthday that presents us with another chance. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So what am I going to do this year for Lent? What am I going to give up, and what am I going to put in its place? I’m still not exactly sure, but I know that I want to take the focus off my own stomach, and reorient it toward the stomachs of folks who are chronically hungry. I believe it was Clement of Alexandria who said that the bellies of the poor are the storehouses of God. If we want to store our treasures in heaven (Luke 12:33-34), we need to fill empty stomachs. So I’m going to try to give up whatever I see that someone else needs. That’s my plan. It’s a tentative plan at best and I pray God will lead me in the details. But I want my Lent to be active, not passive. I don’t want to simply give up something, I want to give something.
I invite comments from people of all faith traditions – I would love to hear how you plan to “celebrate” Lent this year, or what similar traditions you cherish. And I pray you will experience peace and the presence of God over the next forty days.