The original purpose of fasting and abstaining was to draw people to repentance of sins and remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to atone for those sins. When we use these traditions to draw us closer to God, they can become more than religious routines; they can spur spiritual transformation motivated by the Gospel.
Years ago, a friend announced that she was going to give up coffee for Lent. I looked at her, astounded. This friend depended on coffee for survival like most of us depend on air. She drank several cups in the morning and then sipped replenishing shots of caffeine throughout the day. How could she give up coffee?
But even more surprising to me was the whole idea of giving up something for Lent. Although I grew up in a church that practiced Lent, the pastors never talked about observing the season with fasting. The idea intrigued me.
Perhaps you grew up in a church that encouraged partial fasting in the weeks leading up to Easter. Or maybe the whole idea of Lent is new to you. But now you see people talking about their Lenten practices, and you wonder: Is Lent more of a ritual or spiritual awakening?
I think the answer to that question is: It depends.
The Rituals of Lent
Early Christian practices included times of fasting year-round. But the first mention of Lenten fasting comes from the council of Nicea in 325 AD. This document records the suggestion of fasting during the 40 days leading up to Easter. (This 40-day period honored the time Jesus fasted in the desert after His baptism.) The fast for Christians during this Lenten period was fairly strict—no eating until 3 p.m. and no meat, fish, or dairy. Pope Gregory I (590 - 604) prescribed this practice churchwide.
In modern times, some of these practices are still used, although moderated. Many Catholics still abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Many Christians choose to “give up” a favorite food or drink during this somber season. Others may decide to give up a pleasurable activity like watching television, engaging on social media, or doing online shopping.
We may call these practices rituals—religious ceremonies consisting of actions performed in a certain order. Rituals can be beneficial if they draw us closer to God. But they can also become empty habits that we do because of tradition or because it simply seems like the right thing to do. Even worse, rituals of sacrifice may lead us to thoughts of pride if we do them in order to impress others or work to earn God’s approval.
More Than a Ritual
But rituals don’t have to be empty ceremonies. The original purpose of fasting and abstaining was to draw people to repentance of sins and remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to atone for those sins. When we use these traditions to draw us closer to God, they can become more than religious routines; they can spur spiritual transformation motivated by the Gospel.
The key may be found in the very name of the season—Lent. It comes from an Old English word, lencten, which is related to our modern word lengthen and refers to the lengthening of days that happens in spring. And, of course, in the Northern Hemisphere, Lent and Easter occur in the season of spring. We have just come out of long months of darkness and dormant plants—a death of sorts. In spring, grass turns green again, trees sprout leaves, and the world comes back to life. Nature’s cycle of death and life reminds us of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
If we practice Lent intentionally, it can become a spiritual spring—a time of growth and new life in Christ. Perhaps the difference between a routine and a spiritual awakening lies in our focus.
If you fast from chocolate or ice cream during Lent: Every time you have a craving for that favorite food, you can take a moment to thank Jesus for His sacrifice for you. Praise Him for giving up even more than a sweet treat so you can live with Him forever.
If you give up watching television or movies: Ask yourself, “How can I wisely use the time gained?” Perhaps you could choose to slowly read through the Gospels, savoring each story of Jesus and knowing Him better.
If you choose to give up online shopping: Remembering that Christ redeemed you not with gold or silver but with something far more precious can motivate you to use some of the wealth He has temporarily placed under your control to support Christian missions and ministries. Can you use some of the money saved to help homeless people in your community or support missionaries on the other side of the globe?
If you fast from coffee: Can the lack of caffeine-induced energy remind you to lean on Jesus for your strength? Perhaps this Lenten practice can increase your dependence on your loving Savior—a healthy habit even after you return to your daily Starbucks run.
If you choose not to “give up” something for Lent: Perhaps instead of fasting from a favorite food or activity, you could decide to add something to your life. Start attending midweek Lenten services. Daily add 20 minutes of reading a Lenten devotional. Try memorizing Scripture. Spend time in personal worship of God with the Psalms and favorite hymns. Study a particular book of the Bible. Serve your community food pantry. Decide to observe the 40 days of Lent by writing 40 thank-you notes to significant people in your life.
Like my usually-caffeinated friend, you may choose to give up coffee for Lent. Or not.
What you choose to do is not as important as why you do it. If you decide to give up chocolate because that’s what you always do during Lent, you have a ritual without spiritual growth. If you add 40 hours of volunteer work at the school down the street because that will impress the people at church, you have a worthwhile deed but not necessarily a spiritual spring in your soul.
Whatever we choose to do this Lent, whether we decide on a traditional Lenten ritual or a creative approach to this church season, let’s remember the true meaning of Lent—a celebration of death to life. A remembrance of Christ’s undeserved death to offer eternal life to all who repent and trust in Him. If we choose to abstain, let’s do it as a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice. If we add extra time in Bible reading and prayer, let’s do it to savor His grace.
The time of Lent may turn into a ritual if we engage in practices because of tradition or because everyone else is doing them. But those very rituals can be doors to spiritual awakening if we use them to increase our dependence on Christ and deepen our appreciation of His sacrificial love.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/FREDERICA ABAN
Sharla Fritz is a Christian author and speaker who weaves honest and humorous stories into life-changing Bible study. Author of the new book Measured by Grace: How God Defines Success, Sharla writes about God’s transforming grace and unfailing love. Sharla lives in the Chicago suburbs with her amusing pastor husband. Get her FREE ebook 21 Five-Minute Soul-Rest Practices or connect with Sharla at www.sharlafritz.com and Facebook.