The Lenten Fast

The English word ‘Lent’ originated with the Anglo-Saxon name for the Spring month of March – Lenctentid – when the days start to become longer.

The Latin name is Quadragesima, the 40 day period (excluding Sundays) when Jesus’ time in the Wilderness, confronting the devil, is remembered.

I have never really kept Lent before. It wasn’t part of the evangelical faith tradition that I grew up with, which viewed it as a Roman Catholic tradition, irrelevant to non-Catholics since there is no specific Biblical mandate to remember Jesus’ fast.

Since being part of a liturgical church, though, I have come to see the value in the traditions associated with the church year.

Although they didn’t fast while He was with them, Jesus did expect his disciples to fast when He, ‘the Bridegroom’ would be taken away from them.

In fact, it became the custom in monasteries never to eat the meal of ‘breakfast’, since during this time when the ‘Bridegroom’ is taken away from the ‘Bride’, the church, this is always a time of fasting.

Lent is supposed to be a spiritual preparation for the celebration of Easter, which is traditionally kept as a fast after the example of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness before his baptism.

I toyed with the idea of going “local for lent” – foregoing supermarket shopping for independent, local shops, but it would have been quite impossible living where we do, so maybe that’s for another time.

I already gave up meat, so I decided to go vegan for lent instead. Not really that much of a sacrifice at all, to be honest, but certainly a challenge.

Giving something up, whether it be meat, or sugar or cakes, or whatever you choose, is both a discipline and a way to shut out the world in order to connect more closely to God, but is God really impressed when we ‘mortify the body’? What is He looking for actually when we fast?

Isaiah 58:6 says,

“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

⁠Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?”

So God isn’t looking for any kind of discipline or mortification for its own sake, but rather sacrificial giving, or giving up with a purpose.

The Salvation Army calls it ‘Self-Denial’ – William Booth decided to give up dessert for a month so that he could give the amount he saved to the work of saving the needy.

I never really considered the idea of social justice seriously until I found myself in the position of needing help personally. But when I did, I was shocked to realise how little the church family looks after its own, let alone the needy outside of the church. That is something that Lent shines the spotlight on, and that can only be a good thing.

So even if you hadn’t considered keeping Lent before, you might like to think about what needs there are around you – both within and outside of the church – and what you could do to help meet them.

St James has this to say:

“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” – James 1:27

What are the needs around you? In your church, in your neighbourhood? What can you do to help meet them?