Whilst in modern times, the fast of Lent may be perceived as an excuse to lose weight, the true meaning of Lent lies in identity and discovering who we are
Traditionally, the Christian season of Lent is the period of 40 days before Easter Sunday when Jesus is said to have risen from the dead. The idea is to prepare for Easter and usually involves giving up something. The notion is to replicate Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, where he fasted and overcame the temptation from the devil, before the start of his public ministry. Christians fast, pray, reflect and repent sins to replicate Jesus’ temptation, turn away from sin and renew their commitment to following Christ through self discipline and following His example.
Today, Christians will attempt to “fast,” often giving up a particular vice or an addiction to some un-wholesome but not necessarily awful hobby. I am sure everyone knows someone who has committed to some sort of Lent test of will power. I have known people to give up make-up for the period. Some may give up TV or Facebook, or even using their phone. At the moment the Christian Charity, Tearfund, are promoting a Carbon Fast for Lent, to give up or reduce carbon emissions for the 40 days – giving people a fact per day to help them.
This year I have joined many who are giving up the luxury of sweet food. No cakes, chocolates or biscuits for me. To some, this may not sound very sacrificial, but I have an extreme addiction to sweet things. I would live on cake if I could. To be honest, my decision to avoid sweet luxuries was not entirely due to spiritual reasons. It is my best friend’s wedding in June, and I want to make sure I fit nicely into my bridesmaid dress.
A constant criticism of Lent is that it lends itself to the culture of dieting and being skinny. For many it is a time where you have a structure, a reason to diet. Some would argue that I have also succumbed to this celebrity culture. So does my denial of sweet goodies get to the heart of what Lent is?
Having pondered on this, I believe the meaning of Lent is about identity: who you are and who you want to be. There is a well known story where Jesus is tempted by the devil. My interpretation is that he was being lured to being something he wasn’t. I believe that Jesus was the Son of God, however he came to earth to be fully human. That Jesus could be tempted depicts his humanity. Jesus himself struggled to fulfil God’s plan to provide a perfect example for humans to follow. He did not rely on calling angels to turn stones into bread. He endured and showed he could resist, despite hunger. If he had called on angels, like Satan tells him to, then he would not be a fully human example to follow.
So right at the start of Jesus’ ministry he was choosing to be a true Son of God. We see in the story that Jesus struggled, but stood by who he wanted to be and was meant to be. Jesus’ identity and in particular his humanity, is integral to the Christian view of salvation.
Traditionally Lent was about sacrifice, penitence, even suffering. The desert monks would fast, and put themselves in discomfort to be truly close to the crucified Christ by suffering with Him. A type of mysticism also grew along these lines. The evil albino monk in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code may be the best-known example of self-flagellation now but in the time of the desert monks, it was common. Those who self-flagellated did so seeing themselves as sinners beyond mercy.
Some connect this idea to the passage where Jesus tells his followers to take up their cross. Lent is a time when people renew this commitment and “take up their cross”, by putting others before themselves. I believe empathising with Jesus’ suffering is not to suffer for suffering’s sake. It is not to diet to the extreme because you feel worthless for not looking a certain way. I feel that it is important to maintain the mindset of healthy dieting to look after your body and feel your self- worth through other qualities besides looks.
Instead, Lent should be about renewing your identity and your belief in that identity. Identity is linked to partnerships, connection and relationships. It is impossible to understand Jesus overcoming temptation in the desert without reflecting on the rest of his ministry where he gave up self-interest and healed the sick and liberated the oppressed. He was compassionate and loved the world such that he ultimately sacrificed his life. At the start of his ministry, in the wilderness, he gave up food and rejected the devil because he knew his true purpose was to serve humanity and so serve God.
Therefore sacrifice isn’t just for Lent. Jesus overcoming temptation encapsulates his identity but the rest of his life portrays who he was. To be a follower of Jesus, I must also take up my cross; the burdens of people around the world who need help, support and love. Not just at Lent but throughout my life. Resisting cake makes me feel physically healthier and even gives me a sense of achievement, but the thing I value most about Lent is the reminder of how God intended me to live.
Lent is a time to renew and refresh our understanding of our identity as neighbours and as brothers and sisters, and learn to serve others selflessly in compassion.
“Is it such a fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah. 58:5-7).
Image from: http://www.certainchristian.com/page/2/ and http://thegoodheart.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/learning-to-survive-in-lenten-desert.html
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