Laura Hassan explores the tradition of seeking spiritual nourishment through material abstinence.
There aren’t many Easter eggs in the shops yet, nor are the signs of new life associated with Easter time appearing. Last time I checked, only two brave yellow buds had appeared among the crowds of daffodil stems on Wimbledon Common (and I don’t blame them). So it might seem strange that Christians are beginning to prepare for Easter already, but Lent has indeed begun.
Lent, for those who have heard of it, might seem like an archaic part of the traditional Christian calendar, vaguely linked to an excess of pancakes before a period of sobriety and preparation for Easter, but what is it all about? And does it have any real significance for modern Christians, let alone anyone else?
Lent actually commemorates the start of Jesus’ public ministry. Three out of four of the gospels record the period of forty days that Jesus spent in the desert, away from his friends and family, fasting, and preparing to ‘go public’ with his offer of healing, life, grace, and salvation. Matthew’s gospel records the intense temptation that Jesus faced, and overcame, during that time. But if you contrast that time spent with nothing but wild animals and sand for company with our hectic, technology-dependent lives, where there is a fix on offer for any appetite we have, it is not clear how, or why, we can relate to Jesus’ experience in the desert.
Jesus’ reply to his tempter during his period of fasting has much to tell us about the reason for abstaining from food. He quotes a verse from the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament of the Bible: ‘“Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). However much we depend on food, this verse tells us, it can never be life to us. This is not to say that physical food is not important. We are physical beings, who need to eat, sleep, and so on. After his time in the wilderness, Jesus went on to celebrate at the wedding feast of a friend, and on several occasions, he fed crowds of people with bread and fish. The God of the Bible is incarnation; we are told that we have an intercessor, in Jesus, ‘who has been tempted in all things in the same way, without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). God himself knows what it is like to be hungry, cold, sad and in pain. And he also knows that we need more than that which deals with our physical hungers. The Bible teaches that we all need more; that we need ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’.
But how can a word nourish us? How can a word satisfy us? Think about the last time you were down. What did you need most at that moment? Chocolate? Really? Maybe it would comfort you for a moment, but didn’t you really need someone to tell you that you could get through? That you would make it? That the situation you were facing would not last forever? That you were strong enough? Good enough? Brave enough? Words are powerful. And whose words could be more powerful than God’s? God, whose word was enough to bring light into the darkness before the world began? Hearing God’s word spoken over my life through the Bible; the affirmation that he is with me, that his love for me is utterly steadfast and unfailing, that, in him and by his mercy I can ‘bear fruit that will last’, is an experience far more meaningful and nourishing than the most delicious meal could ever be.
Even more significantly than this, John chapter 1 tells us that Jesus himself is the Word of God; the precise expression of his character and intention, and the creative power that brought everything into being. So in quoting the Old Testament scripture that tells us that bread made of flour and yeast is not quite enough, Jesus points to our need for him.
Many modern Christians choose not to make a special occasion of Lent. There is no Biblical command to fast for a specific period, no instruction to make pancakes to use up every last scrap of fat in the house. In fact, Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his time when they asked him why his disciples were not fasting, by saying that their religious rules were like ‘old wineskins’ that would burst when new wine was poured in (Mark 2:22). Wineskins aren’t used anymore so we this seems a little strange; but what Jesus was saying was that religious rules are never enough to contain the life-giving grace of God, which is always new, always renewing, never stale. I know for myself that it is all to easy to set myself a religious challenge like fasting and to forget that what Jesus asks us to do is to tell him, in whatever way, that we really can’t live without him. I know that I can’t live without the Word of God. I make stupid mistakes; I hurt people without even noticing it – and sometimes deliberately. I can’t be right with God without depending on him.
Lent is one more opportunity to make space to depend on God in a new way. Last year I gave up Facebook for Lent! It helped me to clear some space in my head to enjoy God and be renewed by him. I know friends who are fasting from food; this year I’m not fasting. But I do desire to always trust in Jesus, God’s word, to give me life. That is, after all, what we look forward to celebrating at Easter time. Easter is what Lent is all about.
Image from: http://hisheartmysong.files.wordpress.com
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