Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent. For 40 days between 'Ash Wednesday' and Easter Sunday, Christians 'fast', eating one meal a day from Monday to Saturday while also devoting themselves to spiritual disciplines such as prayer and reflection on the Scriptures.
Protestant Christians like me often have mixed feelings about Lent. Although I was raised in a Church going family, Lent was not something we paid attention to. At home we were more likely to enjoy a nice lamb roast on Good Friday than we were to abstain from red meat.
My fear with any tradition is that while they may grow up for good reasons, traditions can easily become a distraction rather than a help. Lent was originally designed to help us remember the truth of the Gospel. Yet that focus can be too easily lost, and when that happens Lent can distract us from the gospel!
At its heart, Lent was designed to help Christians renew their focus on the simple fact that we rely on God above all else.
In abstaining from food, the aim is to shift our focus from the stuff of this life, and toward God. We are reminding ourselves that there are lots of things that we can live without if in this life if we need to, but that God is not one of them!
If we approach Lent with this mind set it can be a very helpful practice. Helpful because in Lent we see the Gospel of Jesus in miniature. After all Lent is about preparing to celebrate Easter, and Easter is the ultimate celebration of our need for God. As we commemorate the death and the resurrection of Jesus we are remembering the hope of eternal life which Jesus has earned for us, and which we could never have earned for ourselves.
It is for this reason that Anglican's have traditionally included in their prayers during Lent that God would see "that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves" and in turn would "keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls." A prayer like this can only be sincerely prayed one we have recognised that we rely on God for everything. That is true whether it is the stuff of this life that sustains our bodies or the sacrifice of Jesus which alone can sustain our soul into eternity.
The danger would be to lose this focus and allow the tradition to become a ritual aimed at earning brownie points with God. When this happens the ritual becomes about self reliance. We imagine that by fasting we have fulfilled a duty to God and that in turn he will respond with a big thumbs us and a hearty well done.
The mistake is understandable since this is how people most naturally believes they can approach God. We believe that what God wants from us is that we live a 'good life'. How we define the good life is different from person to person. It may be a life of hard work, or care for family. It may be a life of religious ritual and devotion. Whatever the content it is a life that places our efforts at the centre.
However the message of Easter is that no matter how well we may live, our efforts cannot earn God's acceptance. But what we cannot do, Jesus has done. His sacrifice has reconciled us to God in a way no sacrifice we make ever could, whether that sacrifice be as small as a couple of meals or as big as our very lives. I come to him, not with an empty stomach that I can point to as proof that I am really a good guy. Instead I come with empty hands with can only cling to the cross of Jesus as I rely on him and him alone.
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