Next week, Christians around the world will observe Ash Wednesday—a holy day for the Christian church that begins a new Lenten season. Lent, for those from traditions who don’t observe this liturgical season, is a forty-day period of preparation for Easter (akin to Jesus’ forty days in the desert) that is often marked by an intentional effort toward individual and communal spiritual disciplines. (For what it’s worth, the actual length of Lent is actually 46 days, as it doesn’t count Sundays, which are never meant to be observed as fasting days.)
For many, those disciplines often manifest themselves in the form of a fast—the spiritual practice of giving up something for a certain time period. The most common fasts are from food of some sort, often meat. Some people fast from desserts, alcohol, coffee, or even certain types of favorite foods. In recent decades, many of these fasts have turned toward the practice of giving up other things like television, social networking, and streaming video services. The idea behind all of these fasts is to give up something that we regularly rely on throughout the year.
Today, many have even shifted the idea of giving up something to adding something new to their lives—reading a Lenten devotional, a daily time of prayer, or regular periods of silence. These are all great ways to prepare ourselves for Easter. When we succeed in our fasts, we feel better about ourselves and our relationship with God. When we integrate new spiritual practices, we are formed as followers of Christ. With all this growth, doesn’t it seem like Lent should be something we all look forward to embracing?
But truth be told, for many, Lent isn’t their favorite time of the year. Lenten fasts are gradually broken. Often the very thing we give up becomes our most challenging longing—tempting us toward failure. New spiritual disciplines move from being regular to sporadic, making us feel like failures. Who would ever look forward to Lent?
In our temptation and sometimes failure, however, I believe something significant happens that’s supposed to happen to us formationally. When we are tempted and want to break our fasts or give up our new spiritual practices, we are reminded of the crosses imposed upon our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. We are reminded that we are broken, mortal, and bound to the desires of our fallen human existence.
And maybe that’s the point of fasting to begin with. Maybe failing at our new spiritual discipline or breaking our fasts are meant to point us toward the cross we will encounter on Good Friday.
In being reminded of our frailty throughout the week, we ought also be reminded of the boundless love, unfathomable forgiveness, and benevolent grace of God that embraces us humans, in spite of our depravity. In our failure, the Holy Spirit restores us again and again. In the end, regardless of whether you give up something or pick up something, know that our Lenten temptations and failures may just be God’s holy reminder that we are redeemed.