Should I “fast” from something?

Yesterday, as I was picking up my daughter from gymnastics, I overheard her coach ask the kids, “do you know what Mardi Gras is?” It is a great question. And since it is question that comes from the Church’s liturgical calendar, I figured I ought to have an answer for her rather than let her rely on her gymnastics coach. After all, I am a pastor and I’m supposed to know that kind of stuff.

The short answer is this: Mardi Gras means “fat Tuesday.” It is so-called because it is the day you “fatten up” before a season of fasting, called Lent, that begins on Ash Wednesday, according to the Church’s liturgical calendar. (Sadly, Mardi Gras has evolved into a carnival that celebrates much of the things to be confessed and repented of on Ash Wednesday.) Ash Wednesday is a day that begins the Lenten season—a season to remember the fasting of Christ in the wilderness prior to his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11). This season of repentance and fasting has been practiced at least as early as the Council of Nicea in 325ad. Its purpose was to prepare God’s people to appreciate Christ and all that he endured during the Holy Week, when he was arrested, tried, beaten, humiliated, and hung on a cross to die—all to show us the curse he became for us.

Today, Lent is often embraced by churches across the world as a time to “give up” something they regularly enjoy, such as TV, coffee, internet, etc. This practice can be good and bad, depending on how you understand it. The idea of repentance is Biblical and one that we are called to practice. Repentance is a turning away from anything we might put in our lives before God. The idea of penance, however, is not. Penance is an act of suffering that is necessary to show “true contrition” that you might be forgiven and enjoy communion with God that was disrupted because of your sin. The problem with this practice is that it points to you and your works, rather than to Christ and his. Christ’s death was once for all. There is nothing we can add to it. Entering a season of penance will not bring you closer to God. If that is expected, then you’ll end up doing the very opposite as you will be turning away form Christ’s suffering and leaning on your own. Entering a season of fasting and prayer, however, can be another story, if the time otherwise spent engaging in the thing from which you are fasting is spent in prayer and reflection upon the sufferings of Christ that prove his love for you.

So the question is not, “what will you give up to show your love for God?” but rather, “what did God give up to show his love for you?” Let the season of lent be about that. After all, Easter follows lent. What is Easter, you ask? Come April 20th and find out.

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