Newsletter Article for the March edition of The Hillside Messenger
Disciplines of Lent
The season of Lent may seem to some an anomaly in a hedonistic culture. Why, someone may ask, should the Church be concerned with penitence, fasting and prayer, when the Lord Jesus Christ so long ago redeemed mankind from sin, and gave them new life in Him? Was the practice of fasting not more suited to a pre-Christian era than it is to this present culture? Admittedly, it was not until the fourth century that Lent as a forty-day period of fasting developed. Yet our Church’s retention of it as a necessary and helpful liturgical season implies it has lasting intrinsic value for the Christian life. The forty days of Lent are a reminder both of the forty years of Israel’s desert wanderings before they could enter the Promised Land and of the forty days during which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ fasted and prayed, and was tempted by the Devil. Moses and Elijah also fasted for forty days at times in their lives, whether we understand a forty-day period of fasting to have been literally forty days, or that this description is symbolic of a long period of fasting and prayer.
If today some Christians feel Lent is unnecessary, then how does one explain the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ, whose life we are imitating as Christians, and whose teachings we aim to apply and obey, did not even begin his ministry before enduring a fast of forty days? In the Gospel according to St. Mark, we read that after Jesus had been baptized, the Holy Spirit “straightway driveth him forth into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12, ASV), where he stayed for forty days and was tempted by Satan. St. Mark gives the details that during this time Jesus was with the wild beasts and angels waited on him (Mark 1:13b), whereas St. Matthew provides the information that angels came and ministered to Jesus only after the devil had concluded his temptations and had left Jesus (Matthew 4:11).
Now, the fact that Jesus Christ our Lord fasted forty days sets all his followers an example to follow, as each is able. Very few people can actually literally go without any food for forty days. Even St. John the Baptist needed locusts and wild honey, and the Lord still regarded that as fasting (Luke 7:33). But we should not argue if we cannot literally fast forty days, that the discipline of fasting has no value. We should rather try to fast for shorter periods of time or eat only vegetables for a while, as Daniel did, but in whatever form of fasting or abstinence the Lord leads us, let it be accompanied by prayer, and by waiting on the Lord to hear and know his will.
Whenever we enter the season of Lent, it must not be a time to ignore God’s discipline, or to neglect to humble ourselves before God. There are portions of Scripture, such as Isaiah 58, that denounce exterior rituals associated with fasting, but the intention is not that God’s people should never fast, but only that they live rightly and justly, loving God wholeheartedly and loving their neighbor, while engaging in this discipline. Sackcloth and ashes and all the exterior signs of fasting, will do no good unless one is turning away from all sin, or has turned away from all sin. One’s treatment of the poor, the alien, the orphan and the widow, must never belie one’s Christian profession. Instead, we must be concerned not to oppress and exploit others, but treat them justly. People of every race and social class will be found in God’s kingdom, and we must treat them all as we would treat any citizen of God’s kingdom – with the love of Christ. Fasting and abstinence with hypocrisy do not go together. The first two have no value in a life in which piety is pretended, and not lived.
The Lord Jesus Christ takes the discipline of fasting to a new level both by his example and by his teaching, in which he tells his disciples to anoint their head and wash their face when they are fasting, so that others do not even think that they are fasting, and their fasting remains hidden. Why did our Lord teach this? It was surely because any visible practice indicating that one is fasting can be misused in the service of outward show and hypocrisy, where pretense and outward show are everything, and the inward attitude of sin and wickedness remains.
Now it is natural for us to want to avoid the disciplines of fasting and abstinence that go with Lent, since human nature is weak, as our Lord warned in the garden of Gethsemane when exhorting Peter to pray:
Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
(Matthew 26:41, KJV)
Since the flesh is weak, it needs to be subdued by the spirit, which is willing. The spirit of man follows the Spirit of God, in leading the man into prayer and into practicing those spiritual disciplines which are conducive to prayer and strengthen it.
Now the disciples of John the Baptist complained at one time to Jesus that they and the Pharisees fasted often, but his disciples did not (Matthew 9:14 ff.). The Lord explained that just as the wedding guests don’t mourn while the bridegroom is with them, so during his life on earth, his disciples would not fast, but the time would come when he would be taken from them, and then they would fast. At this point, Jesus could have called his disciples together, and said that there had been a complaint about his disciples’ never fasting. From now on, he could have said, you will all fast at least twice a week. If Jesus never made such a rule for all his followers, we shouldn’t assume we can, as the Church. Yet the teaching of our Lord takes it for granted that there will be times when his followers fast, and the first of such times would be between his death and resurrection. Our Lord set the example for fasting, but he allows his followers the freedom of when, how and how long to fast, and the Church has been given the tradition of the season of Lent and other holy days, such as the Ember Days, for fasting and abstinence, but our times of abstinence need not be restricted to such seasons and days either. If the Holy Spirit also leads to fast on any other days, we must follow his leading.
Though there is this freedom given to Christians, there are also sufficient warnings from the Lord that we should watch and pray, including also the warning against over-indulgence that may lead to spiritual sloth and carelessness:
And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.
(Luke 21:34-36, KJV)
Therefore it is better to be found watchful and prayerful, if we must use abstinence to be found so, than to be found spiritually asleep, spiritually lazy, and neglecting to prepare ourselves by faith in Christ and holy living for the great Day of his coming to judge the living and the dead. So often, this state of spiritual sloth and ignorance comes little by little, as we make excuses to ourselves not to read the Bible daily, to neglect our prayers, to pay no attention to studying God’s word and to seeing to it that we find out for ourselves the whole counsel of God for our daily life and his perfect will. It comes in the ordinary and natural process of self-indulgence. It comes as we assume some political ideologies are Christian, some cultural values are normal for the Christian. It comes as we let down our guard gradually, day by day.
In view of how easily we fall asleep when we should be praying, as St. Peter fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, let us pay attention, wake up, keep vigilant and use this season of Lent to recover that prayerfulness and vigilance to which our Lord urgently calls us.