With Ash Wednesday just around the corner, many of our thoughts may be turning to choosing a Lenten discipline. For lots of folks, a Lenten discipline automatically equals distancing oneself from certain types of food, e.g. chocolate or meat. And such practices have a long history in the church, stretching back to the Middle Ages. But I often wonder, especially this year, if these types of fasting really serve to meet Lent’s central purpose—preparing our hearts and minds for Easter.
Lent is a period of 40 days (minus Sundays) commemorating Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert before beginning his public ministry. It was a time of intense prayer, introspection, and temptation—not by a burger or a chocolate bunny, but by money and power, the very things that challenge our faith most today. As we enter into a Lent in which we, too, will be called to spend as little time as possible out in the world, perhaps we can endeavor to align our journey more with his as we isolate ourselves in order to keep one another safe.
This Lent will be an extraordinarily challenging one for many of us, especially in places where the COVID-19 pandemic is still ravaging our communities. Many of us have lost friends and family members to the disease. It’s unlikely that refraining from eating chocolate is going to bring anything meaningful into our lives as we mourn. Lenten disciplines are, when we examine the language, simply things that students (disciples) do on a regular basis during Lent, in order to align ourselves more closely with the central teaching of our faith. So, this year, a Lenten discipline might look like setting aside time each day to truly feel our grief. It might look like setting aside time each day to do something besides grieve.
This past year has also been rife with suffering because of poverty, job loss, racism, and injustices of many kinds. What if our Lenten disciplines this year looked like an hour each day using our privilege to show up for those who are more vulnerable than we are? Or sitting in scripture and prayer asking God to guide us in where we are called to serve once Easter arrives?
Or what about rest? What if, for those who are most marginalized among us, especially the children who have lived through this extraordinarily challenging year, a Lenten discipline looks like setting aside time for rest—to nourish and restore the bodies and spirits that God so dearly loves? Or using our money, power, or time, to create the possibility for others to do so?
Whatever we choose to give up or take on this Lent, may it draw us ever closer to the Easter dawn that will come, even when it feels like it couldn’t possibly arrive. May it unite us deeply with the joy that comes only in the Christ who has died and who rose. Who came to wash away all that divides us from him, from the earth, and one another.