Lenten beginnings

Lent beginneth, and the blog returneth! My blogging resolution once again died a death, but I have a few ideas for things I’d like to write, so here’s me trying to be productive in my spare time.

Lent, of course, began last week on Ash Wednesday, the 18th February. Similarly to Advent, Lent’s a season that I didn’t enjoy so much when I was younger, but have been appreciating more and more as I’ve grown up – even if it’s a challenge. Or perhaps because it’s a challenge. Stretching ourselves to do things that are difficult may be frustrating at the time, but the repercussions are positive and can always be seen with a bit of hindsight.

‘Giving something up’ for Lent is one of those things that’s routine; sometimes even cultural. During university I had a housemate who wasn’t religious at all, but who would still give something up for Lent. I was never sure why exactly, but I think he found it satisfying as a kind of endurance test; exercising his willpower.

Self-control is certainly something that is good to practice, but it has a rather different resonance when looking at it from a Christian perspective. In Lent, we are called to imitate Jesus, who retreated into the desert for forty days to pray and fast, and resisted the temptations of Satan. It is significant that, in the Gospel accounts, He did this right after being baptised, and before beginning His public ministry. Jesus was not practicing self-control as an end in itself, but was rather preparing Himself for the tasks that lay ahead.

As Advent is the season where we prepare for Christmas, Lent is our time of preparation for Easter. And as Easter is the ‘feast of feasts’, it makes sense that we prepare for it most vigorously by following Jesus’s own example of how to prepare.

I’m currently following a booklet which has daily reflections for each of the days of Lent. A few of these reflections were focused on reminding us that although fasting is perhaps the most commonly remembered Lenten practice, we are also called to turn to prayer and almsgiving in this season. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are actions that work best when practiced together, and shift our focus from ourselves and our own needs and concerns to instead look outwards, to our relationship with God and with our neighbour. How is God asking us to live?

I’ve been especially thinking about the practice of fasting recently – it may be the practice that is most associated with Lent, but it is growing steadily more unpopular in this day and age I think. The secular world doesn’t understand fasting, except as a way to lose weight. And I myself have asked questions about it, especially when deciding what I’m going to do without for Lent. I often come back to this passage:

When you are fasting, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they go about looking unsightly to let people know they are fasting. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put scent on your head and wash your face, so that no-one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6: 16-18)

Now, I’ve definitely had days when I’ve been fasting, or at least trying to do without something, and been in an absolutely foul mood as a consequence. I’ve also made flippant remarks, such as “Oh, I couldn’t possibly give that up for Lent, as I’d be absolutely unbearable for the forty days!” We’re not meant to make a huge outward fuss about fasting. Jesus makes that very clear.

I think Jesus’s teaching highlights a different aspect to the challenge of fasting. The challenge is not merely in the act of self-denial, but in how you control your conduct. The challenge is to be joyful anyway. Now that’s something I didn’t understand when I was younger, and thought of Lent as a rather drab, grey, austere time of year.

The booklet I’m following points out that fasting reminds us of how dependent we are on God. When we fast, we can be joyful because although we’re going without something, we have God. We always have Him. And He is the most important thing.

Sometimes when it comes round to Lent, we may decide to mark it in a different way – sometimes the trials of life seem such that giving up something feels like it would be giving up a coping mechanism. I think that that is fair enough, and in such cases you can still turn to God in a particular way during Lent by giving your struggles to Him and acknowledging that ultimately you are in His hands. That He is looking after you, even if it doesn’t seem like it, and that it will be He Who sees you through the hard times.

Hm. I think I am losing my train of thought, so I’ll stop here for now.

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