In an age of instant gratification and self-promotion, the season of Lent is neither. Western culture is constantly getting better at telling us that our desires are the most important thing. Every social media site has a complex algorithm designed to make us feel like we are the center of our own universe. And every ad campaign is engineered by teams of highly skilled marketers, and reinforced by millions of dollars to deliver one message to us: “buy our product and you will be happy.” Nothing exemplifies this message better than the way our culture celebrates Christmas. This past Christmas I found myself at Sears. As I was walking past the table saws and the snow blowers a big red banner caught my eye: “Real Joy Guaranteed.” Apparently, the deepest desires of the human race are now available for purchase on debit or credit. This begs the question, “Did it work?” Are we happier now than we were before Christmas? If the answer is no, then maybe we should reevaluate our assumptions about what is truly satisfying. Is our obsession with instant gratification and self-promotion truly fulfilling?
The season of Lent promotes a different message. For those of us who weren’t raised in a liturgical Christian tradition, we may not be familiar with Lent. Let me fill you in quick. In the first few centuries A.D., The Church developed its own calendar with its own seasons and holidays. They knew that we are most shaped by the rhythms and habits that we give ourselves to. So the historical Church provided us with a distinctly Christian calendar to shape us in the way of Christ. In the Christian calendar, Lent is the season leading up to the biggest holiday of the year, Easter. In the season of Lent, we remember the suffering of Christ. Christ fasted and was tempted in the desert for 40 days, so Christians, throughout the centuries, desiring to be united to Christ in His suffering, have fasted, prayed, and given charitably for the 40 days of Lent. These three elements have looked different for different traditions at different times, throughout history, but Lent has remained one of the most important seasons of the Christian calendar.
The season of Lent acts as a prophetic critique of Western culture in a couple ways. Lent critiques our culture's obsession with instant gratification. 40 days is a long time. This time provides us with countless opportunities to tell ourselves, “No.” Lent also critiques our culture’s obsession with self-promotion, because we are taught to be discreet about our fasting, prayer, and charitable giving (Matt 6). Our fasting is only to be seen, “by your father, who is in secret” (NRSV, Matt 6:18).
The Lenten season has an additional benefit for those of us in the modern West: Solidarity with the poor. Prayer and charitable giving are essential to the work of justice, but I would suggest that they are incomplete without fasting. Because when we fast, our empty stomachs, our weakness, and our dizziness unite us with our brothers and sisters from across the globe, for whom hunger is a constant reality.
Can I encourage you, whatever tradition you are from, to fast this Lenten season, Perhaps not from all food, but from some food and indulgences in your life, and pick at least one 24 hour period to go without food completely? I believe this is a critical practice for us to be able to say “no” to ourselves, be united to Christ and his suffering, and be united to brothers and sisters around the globe in their hunger.
Grace and Peace,
AsOne Ministries, Board of Directors