The church calendar invites us to view our journey as disciples of Jesus Christ cyclically. Having anticipated the arrival of our King, celebrated his birth, and given thanks that his kingdom is good news for the whole world, we arrive together once again at the season of Lent.
Lent is “a time of penitence, fasting, and prayer, in preparation for the great feast of the resurrection” (BCP19, p. 542), and Lent begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday. This season was originally a period of preparation for those who wished to be baptized at the Easter vigil. And even though we have already been baptized, we will renew our baptismal vows as part of our Easter celebration. Therefore, we too should treat these forty days of Lent as a time of preparation before we recommit ourselves to the promises made for us and by us at our baptism and confirmation.
In case you don’t remember what those promises are:
- Do you renounce the devil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? I renounce them.
- Do you renounce the empty promises and deadly deceits of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them.
- Do you renounce the sinful desires of the flesh that draw you from the love of God? I renounce them.
- Do you turn to Jesus Christ and confess him as your Lord and Savior? I do.
- Do you joyfully receive the Christian Faith, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments? I do.
- Will you obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in them all the days of your life? I will, the Lord being my helper.
As part of this preparation, disciples of Jesus Christ typically engage in fasting and abstinence. There are two days in particular on which the church expects disciples of Jesus Christ to fast: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But please remember that fasting does not necessarily entail a complete denial of food. For example, Roman Catholics in the US are allowed one meal and two small snacks (that together do not total a meal) while fasting. However you choose to fast on these two days, spend the time you save in prayer. The goal of fasting is not to eat less but to draw us closer to our Lord.
This is likewise the purpose of abstinence. Throughout Lent, we take seriously our Lord’s command to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him (Mark 8:34) by denying ourselves something good and not inherently sinful. We do this to train ourselves in the Christlike virtue of self-denial so that, like Paul, we may “count everything as loss” for the sake of Christ and “know him” and “share in his sufferings” (Phil 3:8, 10).
But we must keep in mind that fasting and abstinence for their own sake is never the goal. Consider what God says through the prophet Isaiah: “Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6–7).
Fasting and abstinence are never their own goals. Instead, they are tools by which the Lord continues to form his image in us and by which he continues to bring his kingdom to this world.
So, this Lent, in this period of preparation before the renewal of our baptismal vows at our Easter celebration, I would encourage you to think about what you can give up and what you can take on. I’d like you to consider practicing Lenten self-denial alongside adopting a new spiritual discipline, a renewed daily commitment to prayer and Scripture reading, or a new social project. (Or, ideally, all of the above.)
However you choose to journey with Christ this Lent, know that I’ll be praying for you, specifically that Christlike self-denial will continue to be formed in you and that God will continue to prepare you for the renewal of your baptismal vows this Easter.
May we all share a blessed Lent.