“Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul.” – I Peter 2:11
Today begins a season of abstinence in the Church – a time set apart to deny the flesh and aim for holiness. While we should of course be seeking to live our best for God every day, the changing of the seasons brings us a reason to say “today” and implement a change or a discipline that will draw us nearer to Christ, similar to how the arbitrary changing of the secular calendar year naturally leads us to make resolutions and changes in our lives. But while our New Year’s resolutions often focus on things like diet and exercise that will make us healthier, happier, and more successful, our Lenten intentions should focus on changes that will make an eternal difference for our souls: changes that lead us to God, that point our hearts and our minds upward.
Lent is a time for setting aside the things that we turn to instead of to God for solace, distraction, or pleasure. It is not a time for denying the goodness and value of those things, but rather a time for remembering the greater goodness and value of God Himself, and for pursuing that greater good. So, traditionally, we fast throughout Lent, and abstain from certain types of food, not to say that food is bad, but to say that we will sacrifice even this basic bodily comfort for God, that we will endure the discomfort of a few missed meals in order to break away from our bondage to the flesh and set our wills toward holiness. Where we would find ourselves snacking in a moment of boredom or anxiety, we are instead faced with an open space of time to turn toward God in prayer or meditation. Where we would typically satiate our hunger immediately and unthinkingly, we are instead given an opportunity to offer up our discomfort to God and remember His inordinate, extravagant, willingly-borne suffering for us.
Food is the universal fast of the Church because it is a universal need of human beings, and as such touches each of our hearts and bodies in various ways. But as individuals, it is also good to examine our lives and see what thing or practice might be serving a similar role, and which would thus be a good spiritual practice to abstain from. For me, this year, it will be sweets and iPod games, because I have noticed myself turning to both those things for pleasure, entertainment, comfort, and distraction instead of taking the needs and desires of my heart to the Lord. Instead of playing a game while I wait for the light rail, I can read the Bible on my iPod, pray, or simply meditate on Christ. Instead of turning to cookies in the evening to wind down and relax, I can turn to Jesus and give Him my worries and struggles from the day. So these are small things, and simple things, but things that will be difficult for me and that will force me to cling to the grace and presence of God – which is ultimately the whole point of Lent.
We serve a God who is holy, and He calls us to be holy as well. And yet our inherent tendency is to enjoy the feasts and festivals of the faith – the high celebrations of Christmas and Easter, the joyful commemoration of the Resurrection each Sunday, even the expectant hush of Advent – while ignoring the fasts. Is it any wonder that the celebrations themselves tend to lose their power and their wonder for us, when we have sought to fill every day with pleasure and never let our hearts meditate on the sorrow and suffering of our Lord and His call for us? Is it surprising to us that we can no longer feel the exquisite piercing joy of celebrating the Incarnation and the Resurrection when we have closed our ears to the darkness of Good Friday and the hard road of obedience that Jesus modeled for us? We need a time to look upon the evil in our world with open and unflinching eyes, to mourn the sin and suffering in our families, communities, and nations, to sit with the bereaved and the broken, to understand the burdens of injustice and oppression, without instantly drowning our uncomfortable feelings in platitudes or mind-numbing distractions. Lent is that time.
Come with the Church into the heart of the world’s pain. Come suffer with her as she seeks to understand and bear the hurt of all the lost and broken souls wandering through this vale of tears. Come walk with our Lord through His sorrowful Passion, which He endured for our sake. Come, enter into Lent.