(Note: This was originally two e-mails that I sent out to our Young Adult group at church as an introduction to Lent and Ash Wednesday. Since it is Shrove Tuesday, I thought it might be good to revisit it and share it here. Also, since it is Shrove Tuesday, go get shriven by any priest. Just show up and ask if they’ll hear your confession — you might just make their day! It’s right there in The Book of Common Prayer! If you have any tips or tricks on how to have “a holy Lent” please do so in the comments — this beginner could use them!)
What is Lent?
The forty weekdays leading up to Easter are a special time in the church. In the same way that Advent prepared us for Christmas, Lent prepares us for Easter. Traditionally, Easter (specifically the Easter Vigil) was when most baptisms took place, so the forty days of Lent became a time of fasting and prayer for those preparing to receive the sacrament. Over time, however, many in the church decided to fast in solidarity with the catechumens (the new comers/”learners”) and it has this penitential nature to this day. The Lenten fast excludes Sundays because Sundays are feast days. Lent has a get-back-to-the-basics feel to it (that’s why all the crosses will be veiled throughout Lent, the alleluia will not be said and the vestments will be purple). It is a time to examine your life.
What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the official start of Lent in the Western Church. In the few centuries after Christ, Ash Wednesday was the time when those who had been excommunicated, usually for a heinous sin, were half-way allowed back into the Church. They would not be restored to fellowship until they had performed very public penances: wearing sackcloth and ashes (a common Old Testament practice). After completing their 40-day penance, they were restored and allowed to take Eucharist at the Easter Vigil. Over time, the entire Church began to wear sackcloth and ashes as a form of very public penance. We’ve lost the sackcloth but kept the ashes, which are marked on the forehead with the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”(BCP 265) — a sober reminder of the transitory nature of life.
Why deal with Sin?
Dealing with sin is still an important part of what it means to live as a faithful follower of Christ and — I assure you — there is a way to deal with sin that does not end in legalism or judgementalism! The fact remains that there are things in my life that are detrimental to my health, both spiritually and physically. Our attachment to these things leads, ultimately, to death: not only a physical and spiritual death, but also the death of relationships. How many of our friendships have been damaged or ended because of envy or anger? Even worse, our attachment to these sins numb our souls to the work of God and we become in danger of “calling evil, good and good, evil” (Isaiah 5:20). If not dealt with, we can become so calloused and self-absorbed that the work of God becomes like “maggots” and “rotteness” to us (Hosea 5:12).
Of course, this list includes acknowledged sins like hateful speech, murder, promiscuous sex and gluttonous over-eating. But, it also includes things that we might never consider: like greed (do I really need that?) or pride (why do I get so angry when someone corrects me?) or jealousy (why does she get to live that life?) or guilt (why is everything I do wrong?). The soul can become attached to entirely too many things. These sins — even the “fun” ones — are too big a burden for us to carry and their very weight harms us.
The wonderful thing is that even in our sin, Christ does not hate us nor does he desire to throw us out with the garbage. He stands, gently whispering to us, “come to me that are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). As the Collect for Ash Wednesday begins, “you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent”(BCP, 217). God deeply loves us, for God is infinite love. And it is only through this love that these terrible weights and these sins are transformed. Sin is not fixed, it is not to be ignored nor is it be be put under denial. The only way to deal with these things is to let them go. Thanks be to God!
The biblical formula for a forty-day fast is extensive. Before receiving the Ten Commandments, Moses was on a 40 day fast (Ex. 34:28-29); Elijah was on one after fleeing from Jezebel’s threats (1 Ki. 19:7-9); and before beginning his public ministry, Christ was tempted in the wilderness for Forty Days (Matthew 4:1-11). In imitation of Our Lord and the long-standing Jewish tradition, Christians continued this forty-day period. Now, the period between Ash Wednesday and the Easter Vigil is actually 46 days. So, you can break your fast on the Five Sundays of Lent (and Palm Sunday) and still meet the forty-day fast.
Breaking your fast on Sundays is important for other reasons. When I was growing up, I remember being told that Roman Catholics break their fasts on Sundays. I scoffed at that and thought it was cheating. Even though it was never implicitly stated, the attitude was: I’m so good I can actually keep a fast. Not breaking your fast with the rest of the community can be an opportunity for spiritual pride: a dangerous monster covered in a thin veneer of false piety. If you’re not careful, it says that you are better than established Christian tradition and leave a chance to judge those of us who break their fasts with gladness on Sundays.
More importantly, there is something powerful about common prayer — don’t forget we have an entire Book of it! Common prayer is the great leveler of a community: we pray the same words, believe the same Creed and take from the same cup. The church has had 2,000 years of perfecting Christians and has made provisions for many of the dangers and pitfalls of the spiritual life. Engaging this common prayer in obedience (when to fast and when not to fast) helps us remember that we are all held to the same rule: not one of us is more holy or more special because we deviate from it. In fact, many of the Church Fathers would say that it is the obedience to the common life that produces holiness, not some over-the-top action outside of it (which is often sought for vanity’s sake). And if the church has been producing great Saints who broke their fasts on Sundays through Lent because it was part of common prayer, then we should not presume to think that we are any better than they.
As St. Paul put it, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone” (1 Cor. 10:13). We’re all in the same boat here; we shouldn’t presume that we’re not.
How does fasting change my life?
Our little Lenten disciplines reshape how we approach life and help us to see more clearly what is necessary and what is not. St. Paul put it this way, “. . . be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). By fasting and self-denial we allow God to rework our hearts to desire that which is good and holy — ultimately, bringing us closer to Christ and each other.
How exactly does fasting do this? Saying “No” to things that are not sinful makes it easier for us to say “no” to the things that are sinful. For example, if we give up chocolate for Lent and deny that desire faithfully; then, we build up some fortitude of character and can say, “Perhaps I don’t need to gossip today” or “Perhaps I don’t need to let this anger take root.” Try to make that connection next time you’re tempted to follow something that is destructive.
Just like an athlete who prepares for a lengthy marathon by running for short periods that get longer and longer each day, so too, does our soul prepare to give up those big, unhealthy and sinful attachments by giving up the small non-essentials (Chocolate, Meat, TV Watching, etc). Willingly walking the path of the Cross by self-denial of the non-essentials helps us to willingly walk the path of the cross when it comes to those habits that are killing us and those we love. And we can only conquer those destructive sins by letting go and fasting from them.
Advice for a Holy Lent:
- Do an examination of your conscience. Take thirty minutes in a quiet place and ask yourself two questions: What leads me towards God? What leads me away from God? Use the Ten Commandments (BCP, 350), the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26) or the Baptismal Covenant (BCP 304) as a guide. Please remember, you are doing this in order to let things go, not in order to be thrown out with the garbage. Christ is standing there waiting for us to let these things go; He is practically giddy waiting for you to give them up (Luke 15:22-24)! Ask God to help you.
- Confess your sins to God (BCP 79). If you need counsel or if you are particularly troubled, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) is a perfect help for this (BCP 446-452).
- Think about the list of things that leads you away from God. Pick one to abstain from. Pick one small enough that you will adhere to your fasting from it faithfully and do it privately (due to our vanity, public penances should only be sought after wise counsel of a Priest or together as an entire community). Seek to be faithful in the small things before you tackle the big things.
- Think about the things that lead you to God. Pick one to increase during Lent. The same advice applies here for this, too. Pick a small one. The less public, the better.
- Exchange one for the other. For example, if one of your distractions is playing on the computer and one of good things is ministering to lonely folks, then spend the time you would play on the computer by visiting a lonely neighbor or calling an old friend. Another example: if you fast from Soda take the money you would be spending on it and give it to the Church as an offering. Another example: if vanity is a problem, cut your morning-prep time in half and read a chapter from the Bible or spend the time in prayer instead. Get creative and ask for God to help you with this!
- Break it on Sundays. This is highly encouraged! Splurge in thankfulness! Play on your computer till your eyes bleed! Drink Soda until you go into a sugar crash! Watch that Golden Girls or Rosanne marathon in your pajamas after Church! Make yourself as beautiful as possible! Break your fasting without shame!
- Do not tell anyone about it (except, perhaps, for a mentor or a friend who will keep you accountable). Don’t let your left-hand know what you’re right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3). This is not a contest; this is not a chance to see who is the most “awesomest Christian EVAR!!1!!1”. This is a time to allow God to change your heart!
“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church,
to the observance of a holy Lent,
by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and
by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word (BCP 265).”