"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

24 February 2009

Lenten Thoughts

My lifetime in mainline and evangelical Protestant churches has not given me much understanding of Lent. I have always been intrigued by the concept of “giving something up for Lent,” but I never understood why one would do so and thus never thought about actually doing so myself.

In the past few years I’ve begun to pay more attention, and reading Death on a Friday Afternoon, a meditation meant for any time but especially appropriate for Lent, has given me a glimmer of what Lent might be about. Recently on a weblog of Christian debate where I read regularly, Dr. Frank Beckwith announced his intention of giving up blogs and blogging for Lent , which led to some discussion in the comments section about the purpose of the season. I ventured tentatively to offer my thoughts and was relieved and gratified to have them affirmed by some of the contributors I trust and learn from, and so I have reworked them for Inscapes.

Someone asked that if one gave up something harmful for Lent, something one indulged in too much perhaps, then wasn’t that bad if one merely intended to return to it afterwards. This would be an excellent objection were that the object of the Lenten fast, but it’s a misunderstanding, one I shared until pretty recently. A Lenten fast is not for giving up that which one should give up anyway, something that is bad for one at any time. That shouldn't take Lent for us to do; that we should do as soon as we realize the need. Rather, in giving up something, sacrificing it, for Lent, something which may well be a good in itself, an innocent pleasure or whatnot, one is creating opportunities to reflect instead -- when desiring that thing -- on the far greater, ultimate sacrifice of the Lord that occurred on Good Friday, and on one's own nature which led to the need of that sacrifice, and thus to gratefulness for His doing what we could not.

I think, from what I hear, that it is not uncommon for people to find they can do with less of whatever they give up for Lent, and to form a habit of doing without which may be good for them. But this, if I understand aright, is a side benefit of the fast, a secondary result of the time for reflection it provides, not the point and not a necessary result. The real benefit of the fast is a renewed understanding of what has been done for us on the Cross, which we hope will stay with us in our busied lives, but which gets so easily crowded out that it is always healthy to find time to reflect upon. This is, I believe, the reason for the weekly fasts some traditions hold to, including the fast from meat on Fridays that used to be a Catholic tradition. Instead of indulging in a normal pleasure, one abstains from it, and uses the abstention as opportunity for prayer and reflection: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting provides the paradigm, of course. Someone was concerned about missing Dr. Beckwith’s contributions in a number of places on the web; his is a valuable ministry to many. But I think of how Jesus went to pray on the mountaintop alone, not every minute being available to the disciples. Even He needed rest and renewal and reflection and solitary prayer. As I have been thinking on these things, I begin to see the encouragement that some kind of fast can offer to reflect on the sacrifice and redemption we are going to celebrate at Good Friday and Easter. Jay Watts, another Protestant who had not been much exposed until some years ago to the reasons for a Lenten fast, commented in the same thread: “I found that it truly adds to my spiritual preparation for Easter Sunday. It enhances my Easter experience as the day is always out there in my reflection. Not because I am counting the moments until I can end the fast, but because the reason for my sacrifice is inescapably linked to ‘the event’ as the early Christians called it.”

And so this year I am going to try a Lenten fast. I do not propose to publicize what I am fasting from except to a few close friends, but as I am not very disciplined in certain ways, I expect it shall not be an easy start, at least, and any who wish to pray for me I will be grateful to. I wish to know my Lord more fully, to understand His sacrifice more clearly, to learn more humility before His love which surpasses all comprehension, which He lavishes so abundantly where it is not deserved. I pray that He will show me the way and keep before me His purpose.

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