I didn’t grow up in a high church liturgical tradition, so I knew little about Lent until I was in my twenties. Each year, it seems, I hear of friends and relatives who want to give up something for Lent, but aren’t really sure what, how, or why. So, they usually give up chocolate or beer or smoking and then complain about how hard it is. If you, like me, didn’t grow up in a tradition that observes Lent, but you are intrigued by what you might be missing, I hope you find this post helpful.
First, a brief history of Lent. Though it is difficult for scholars to pinpoint the exact start of the fast we know today as Lent, there are indications that a 40-day fast preceding the observance of Easter was established by the early-4th century. The nature of the fast varied, some observing a strict vegetarian diet, others allowing for the consumption of fish or poultry or both. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday continues through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. In more recent times, the practice of fasting from certain types of foods has expanded to include abstaining from certain types of luxuries.
If you want to observe Lent this year, here are some tips for you from my own experience over the past several years:
- Give up something good. The purpose of Lent is to prepare followers of Jesus for Holy Week by fasting or giving up luxuries as a way of voluntarily entering into the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus. It is not an opportunity to break a bad habit. So, when you are considering what you might give up for Lent, it should be something that is good in your life, not something you are wanting to drop.
- Start small. If you are a meat-and-potatoes kind of person, it’s probably not a good idea to try a total meat fast for Lent. Maybe giving up bacon for 40 days is sacrifice enough! Whatever it is, start small this year. 40 days is a long time. You can ramp up your efforts next year.
- Reflect often. During those times in which you feel the “pain” of your mini-sacrifice, take a moment to reflect on what it means to suffer. Your pain is your pain, but there are others who live with so much less than you.
- Celebrate on Sundays! During Lent, Sundays are mini-Easters. Your fast is off! You enter into the promise of resurrection by partaking again in that which you are voluntarily giving up.
- Journey together. As much as is possible, don’t undertake Lent alone. Find others with whom you can process the experience. This may be your church, your small group, a relative, or a group of friends.
If you participate in Lent this year, I’d love to hear about your experience!