In 2007—at the age of 26—I observed Lent for the first time in my life.
I grew up in a tradition where there was not much time spent on Church calendar seasons such as Lent or Advent. We did Easter and Christmas just like everybody else, but I had never even heard of Lent until I went to college.
After I learned about Lent and what it is, I became increasingly curious about this ritual of fasting from something during the Lent season. It seemed that there might be something I was missing by never observing it myself.
So in 2007, I decided that I would observe Lent. I would choose one thing in my life and abstain from it for six-and-a-half weeks.
So I gave up TV. (I know there are some who believe that fasting is only valid if is a food-based abstinence, but cut me some slack; I grew up Baptist)
That may sound stupid to some people, but for me it was a real sacrifice. I love TV. I was still single and lived in an apartment by myself, so there were lots of nights when my TV kept me company before I fell asleep. Plus, I don’t think it should be ignored that this when both LOST and The Shield were on the air, so this whole thing was a major inconvenience for me. But I did it, and I am glad that I did.
However, before I jumped into Lent, I did some reading. I looked through the Scriptures at the various places where someone fasts, and there are lots of different motives for fasting. However, from among those different contexts and motives, I did discover a pattern that showed up, not every time, but with a high amount of frequency.
In Judges 20, the people of Israel have been divided, and they are about to go into battle against their brothers from another tribe. In other words, they are on the brink of civil war. And, in verses 24-26, we are told that they begin to fast.
Something has been broken, and they desperately want it to be restored. So they fast.
In Leviticus 16, as part of the celebration of the Day of Atonement, there is a day that is devoted to fasting. Again, something has been broken, and the Day of Atonement is when everything gets put back together again. So in anticipation of this restoration, the people are told to fast.
In Isaiah 58:3-7, fasting is for the purpose of social justice. People are being mistreated, and there is an acknowledgement that it should not be this way. So the people fast out of grief and a longing for justice in a world without it.
Over and over again, the Scriptures show us people who fast, and their fasting is always out of a longing—an anticipation—of renewal.
People fast to mourn what has been lost.
People fast out of a longing for justice.
People fast when they long for rescue (Esther) or a renewal of personal identity (Ezra).
Fasting is about restoration.
So Lent—as I see it, anyway—is a season in which we anticipate restoration and renewal. It is a season in which we acknowledge that there is pain and brokenness and loss and fear in the world, but that’s not the end of the story.
By giving up something for Lent, we become more eager for sunrise on Easter morning. We teach ourselves to look forward to Easter in the same way that children look forward to Christmas. That first year, every time someone asked me, “Did you watch LOST last night?” it made me wish it was Easter already so I could return to my normal, TV-watching life. Again, I know it sounds stupid and trite to some, but it taught me to anticipate Easter, so it served its purpose.
In Lent, we are joining in with the rhythms of the universe, in which all things are longing for renewal, and breathe a sigh of relief and joy when we finally taste what we have been craving.
Easter is a day where we catch a glimpse of resurrection. Lent, then, is a season in which we teach ourselves to long for that resurrection.
Personally, it makes no difference to me if someone gives something up for Lent or what they give up if they do. I realize that everyone has their own journey, and some people are great at anticipating resurrection without the calendar reminding them to do so.
However, for me, I need it. I don’t do it every year, but the years when I do observe Lent are the years when Easter is received more joyfully than others.
So regardless of whether or not you abstain from something during Lent, may you learn to anticipate resurrection, and may you greet the sunrise on Easter with joy and thanksgiving.