Lenten Practices: Beyond the 40 Day Fast

What is Lent?

Lent is an ancient Christian liturgical season. It is perhaps the oldest religious season on the calendar. (Easter is the oldest Christian feast, it predates Christmas by a couple hundred years.) And it began as a time when those preparing to be baptized (initiated into the community) undertook special rituals, and practices, in the run-up to their entrance into the faith. The season goes far beyond a 40 day fast.

It wasn’t until a couple centuries later, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and basically made the whole empire Christian overnight, that Lent took on something more closely approximating its current shape. For Christians Lent (the 40 days proceeding Holy Week) has become a time of spiritual preparation for the most sacred week in the year.

Lent Traditions: Fasting & More

There is a reason that corporate America has yet to be able to capitalize on Lent, the way they have commercialized and utterly corrupted Advent. That’s because Lent is everything the capitalism hates: it’s focus is on discipline, moderation, and charity. Good luck slapping that on a can of cola, or a Lexus.

Lent addresses something we’re not good at admitting: that we are flawed and that we have harmed others (intentionally or not). Lent demands that we spend at least some time facing our own demons and reckoning with them. A big red bow on the hood of a luxury car will not heal the wounds I’ve done to my relationships.

This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. (Book of Common Prayer, 264)

Sadly, the purpose of Lent has been twisted by popular culture, the 40 day fast has been flattened into simple self denial that leads nowhere, and that isn’t helpful to anyone. Fasting just for the purpose of fasting, just because it makes you feel bad is self indulgent. It strokes your ego.

Mountain peeking through clouds

Transformation Not Punishment

Actual transformation has nothing to do with self flagellation and punishment. Here’s the thing. If you fast just because it denies you something you’ve gotten all you will get out of that fast. You remained stubbornly focused on yourself, you gave yourself one more thing to feel smug about, or to complain about.

Transformation moves us outside ourselves, it focuses us on others and it aligns our purposes with God’s agenda. God’s agenda doesn’t have any need for you (or anyone else) to suffer. God’s agenda is chiefly concerned with the oppressed, the stranger, the poor, the weak. Why we do things matters. It matters because it changes out insides. Lent is typically a time when we repent of our sins.

Sin is a churchy word for the things we do, or don’t do, that break our relationship with (or cause harm to) other human beings and  the Divine.

This isn’t the place for a deep dive into what actually constitutes repentance, the short of it is this. To repent is to turn around, it is to realize we have been wrong and to actively change our behavior. While suffering may often be involved in such a life change (change is uncomfortable) it isn’t required. You don’t have to punish yourself. In fact, punishment is cheap and easy. We suffer, we tick some box, and we continue on as we always have.

Transformation is the harder road.

Lenten Practices

Fasting

Fasting is an ancient spiritual practice found across religions. It is often used as a tool to facilitate transformation. A fast can range from the Muslim practice of Ramadan where the practitioner neither eats nor drinks between set times, to abstaining from one thing only over a longer period.

So long as you do not endanger your health (all religious fasting practices include exceptions for those who shouldn’t fast) there isn’t a right or wrong way to fast. There can be right and wrong reasons. Fasting to “punish” your body for its shape would be a wrong reason. In fact, since in doing so you break your own relationship with your body (by doing it harm) one could call such a fast sinful.

Reasons to Fast

During Lent there are good reasons for choosing to fast. We can fast to align our actions with God’s agenda, to discipline ourselves, to practice moderation, and these are all appropriate reasons to practice fasting.

There are a myriad of ways to fast. At it’s most basic to fast is to abstain from something for a set purpose. You can abstain from food, from meat, or from alcohol. For example: one might fast between breakfast and dinner and donate the amount you would have spent on lunch to a non-profit that provides meals to the vulnerable. Your hunger in those days can crystallize for you the way others suffer (if only a little bit). If it moves you to change your actions, and to work toward a community where no one will ever go hungry, your fast has born fruit.

Raindrops on a window

How to fast

There are obviously wide ranges to fasting. From a full 40 day fast, to fasting just one day during each week of Lent, to fasting for a few intentional hours. You should not fast if it will cause you harm. However you choose to fast it should be a regular practice over the season of Lent as the repetition is important for your inner growth. So set yourself a goal, perhaps you will abstain from all alcohol for the whole of Lent. Perhaps you will fast during work hours on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent. Or perhaps you will eat no meat during Lent. Whatever you choose be sure to be consistent, and try to find a way to make your practice about more than just your own experience.

If you have never fasted before go slow. Begin by setting small goals for yourself, and remember to focus on staying hydrated. If you have any medical conditions (like diabetes, hypoglycemia, or eating disorders) that might make fasting dangerous consult your doctor (it is always a good idea to consult your doctor!).

Remember: the point of fasting is not to punish your body! 

Stay hydrated. I’ll say that again: stay hydrated. Listen to your body. Know the difference between discomfort (wow I’m hungry!) and danger (something is wrong.) You may find that fasting helps you pay attention to your body more, which is not a bad thing at all.

Also remember that fasting doesn’t have to mean food or drink. To fast is to abstain from something, and there are a lot of things in your life that might be healthy for your to try abstaining from for an extended period of time. Get creative and think outside the box.

Praying the Hours: Time Fasting

There are a lot of people who just shouldn’t perform a traditional fast. And there are other great ways to mark the season of Lent. A very appropriate practice for Lent is to add set regular prayer into your daily life. I have already written extensively about praying the hours and how it can transform your spiritual life. If it is not part of your regular prayer practice Lent is a good time to experiment with adding this to the shape of your day.

Many religions have set prayers for certain times of day. This does a myriad of things; it sanctifies the ordinary moments of our day (like waking, eating, or resting), it reminds us of our connection to the Divine on a regular basis, and it interrupts the otherwise tyrannical clock. Praying the hours resets how we look at our time. It brings us back, predictably, to our relationship with the Divine as our constant (instead of work, the kid’s soccer schedule, or the shopping).

It is a practice I frequently suggest adding in Lent for those looking for a different sort of Lenten experience.

Overgrown concrete stairs

Sabbath: Busyness Fast

Think of sabbath as a fast from busyness. We live in a world that is obsessed with busyness and productivity. We practically worship the stuff. Sabbath flies in the face of all that. Sabbath states emphatically and weekly that we are more than what we produce or consume. Sabbath says that there is more to life than work (any kind of work).

Sabbath orients our time in a different way. It arrives the same day every week, ready or not. Sabbath doesn’t care if it’s been an easy week or a hard week, if we have a deadline looming, or if the kids procrastinated their homework again. It sweeps in, and tells us that the thing we are is beloved of God/Divine and worthy of rest and delight.

I have written about my own Sabbath practice, and how it can become part of your life. If the thing you most need to fast from in your life is busyness, or an obsession with work then this one is for you.

 The Anti-Fast

For many people giving up something has become such a meaningless gesture or habit that it fails to actually effect any sort of change in their lives. In that case I find that adding a spiritual practice can be just as appropriate a practice for Lent. While early Christians fasted during their preparation for baptism they also took on added prayer, study, and community practices that were equally important.

There are as many sorts of spiritual practices to choose from as there are people in the world (or it seems like it.) And the key here is really about consistency. Starting a new spiritual practice isn’t easy, sticking with it takes some work, but the results are worth it.

The bonus (hopefully) is that unlike a 40 day fast for Lent your new spiritual practice can stick around long after Lent is over.

Transformation

You are already beloved just as you are. That is the simplest version of the gospel that I can give you. There isn’t anything you can do that will make God love you one bit more, or one bit less. Can’t be done. But that doesn’t mean that you perfect just as you are.

We flawed human beings are called into transformation, to spend our lives growing more and more into our humanity. It is a call for growth, growing self awareness, and maturity. None fo these things will happen over night, none of them are the work of one season and then done.

Transformation changes us, atom by atom, cell by cell, from the inside out. And it is (usually) hard work. But it is worthy work. To grow more mature, to become more self aware, all of it is good for us. Most of us are searching for peace, stability, healthy relationships, joy. But we have been trained to seek them in the instant gratification of the cash register jingle.

None of the things we seek are available for purchase. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t available. Spiritual maturity, transformation, growing up (if you will) are available to all of us. They cost nothing in dollars and cents, but quite a lot in our energy.

Lent isn’t a tourist season, it won’t help much if you drop in for 40 days and then wander off again. A sort of “ticket punch” like at the local coffee shop. But if you are thinking about stepping out on the journey of a lifetime, Lent might just be the perfect time to begin.

Neon sign says "The Journey is On"

Invitation to Lent

Are you ready? Here it comes. Another church season, another moment for people to ask you that same question: what are you giving up for Lent? Who knows why we do it, maybe we’re suffering with Jesus a little bit, or we just need a second chance at those new year resolutions, or we’re really spiritually hungry for something and this is something…

What preparation looks like

Here’s the thing. Lent isn’t about giving something up. It isn’t about depriving yourself. It isn’t about feeling guilty for not doing something. It isn’t about any of that, thank God. Lent has one purpose, to remind us that we are about to walk on the most holy ground, and that we might want to do a little getting ready for that. You wouldn’t, after all, invite a house full of friends over for a party and do nothing to get ready for their arrival. You wouldn’t have a wedding without a single thought to any preparation. If you are pregnant you are probably organizing baby clothes, and finding a crib, and a car seat, and reading books.

The holiest day of the year is approaching, the day life beats death, the day creation starts over from scratch, the day our violence and greed and anger are finally made powerless in the face of peace, and selflessness, forgiveness and love. The day we are adopted, the day God gets tired of waiting for us to come home and comes to us. All of that is rushing at us at 40 days per year, which is pretty darn fast. And there are a thousand people in your life who don’t know. They don’t know that they are loved, no matter what. They don’t know that love won the day. They don’t know that there is forgiveness available. They don’t know that God is dreaming, right now, and wants them to dream too.

Speak with your life: more than 40 ways

Lent is your chance to tell them. Not with words, but with your life. Not by giving up chocolate, or beer, unless you can do so in a way that says “I am Someone’s beloved and that changes my life.” Do something that preaches. Wrap a bag full of little chocolates in bits of colored paper that say things like: Loved, Free, Alive, Rejoice, Forgiven, Beautiful; and then put them somewhere you can share them. Where you can give those little gifts.

Stop. For one day. Yes for Lent, keep Sabbath. Despite your kid’s whining, or your own surety that homework won’t get done, or your work won’t get done, or everyone will have to go to church naked because there is no laundry. Do it. Admit that we are not God for one day, and let God be God. For one day let delight, and love, and peace be your guideposts. Let rest and renewal and newness be your tasks. Six days out of Forty. And let your life preach something strange and different and delightful. (If you still think Sabbath is about sitting around bored, send me an email, that ain’t it folks. God doesn’t want to bore you, God wants to care for you, to spoil you rotten in the most holy way.)

Give up shame. (Not my idea.) Consider living like you really believe you are loved and forgiven. Oh this one is hard, hardest of all maybe. But what could be more faithful. Read something by Brene Brown, and devote yourself to living with your whole heart, vulnerable, and beautiful, and amazingly made. Because you are, God said so.

Study, get to know your fore-sisters and brothers in the faith. Get to know their lives, the way the love of God lit them on fire and made them lights for the whole world; get inspired! Let others see your geeky passion for what God is doing.

This Lent, let your life preach something different to a world that knows only gluttony or starvation. Let your life preach of the abundant, overflowing, overwhelming love of God. Your preaching will transform your self, your family, your world. And that, that is what Lent is about.

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