Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Trying to Understand Lent

Today is the first day of Lent.  Unless you are Eastern Orthodox.  Actually it's a little confusing.

Not that I really know that much about Lent, and apologize for seeming like an expert in the title to this post.  A few years ago I did some research and learned that after Constantine established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, the number of people converting to Christianity went way up.  Obviously, these new believers didn't know much about Jesus and so Lent was established to prepare and teach those who were going to get baptized on Easter.  Come to think of it, Easter is a great day to get baptized.  After all, we celebrate Jesus' resurrection on Easter, and Romans 6 tells us that our baptism represents our death and resurrection.

At any rate, Lent became a time of committed study and prayer to prepare for baptism, and since baptism welcomed these new believers into the Christian community, the entire church community joined together in study and prayer.  As part of the preparation, the Church joined together in fasting.  At first the fast was a few days, and over time, the fast became 40 days, the same number of days that Jesus fasted in the wilderness before beginning his ministry that culminated in crucifixion and then resurrection.

Today, Lent is part of the liturgical calendar, and Christians all over the world observe Lent, with its focus on Jesus' life, and the commitment to prayer and fasting.  Over the years the fasting part has looked like a lot of different things, but I'll get to that later.

Most Western Christians begin Lent today, Ash Wednesday.  The forty-day fast begins today and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.  The Sundays during that time period don't count because every Sunday is sort of a mini-Easter, a celebration of the resurrection.  (Incidentally, Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday and that's why Christians traditionally attend church on Sundays.)  I don't know if fasting stops on those Sundays or not.

Eastern Orthodox Christians will begin Lent next Monday, also known as Clean Monday, and the forty days end on Good Friday.

Whether you start Lent today or on Monday doesn't really matter.  At least in my opinion.  These are man-made traditions.

However, there's something really powerful in dedicating forty days to remember Jesus' sacrifice on the cross and to prepare to celebrate his resurrection.  I think we tend to forget the deep sorrow the disciples felt when they watched Jesus die, and the wonder and the joy and the amazement they experienced when they saw him living and walking and speaking--only days after his death.  We take these things for granted, and I suspect sorrow, changed to wonder, joy, and amazement at this miracle that gives us life would change the way we relate to God.

At any rate, fasting is a part of this.  If you read through the Old and New Testaments, you will see God's people fasting.  Fasting creates awareness of our need for God and dependent on God for strength.  It reminds us that we are small, but God is big.  Fasting, whether for one day or three days is hard.  Fasting for forty days is harder.

 I read about Lenten fasts over the years, and some of them are pretty complicated.  Some fasts banned animal products.  Other fasts included bread and water only.  Some restricted the hours that food could be consumed.

Generally, Lenten fasts were stricter in the Middle Ages than they are now, and most people choose one or two items to fast from.  For example, one person might fast coffee or alcohol and another might choose to adopt a vegan diet, staying away from meat, eggs, and dairy.  Other people fast non-food items like television or Facebook.

Although Newbreak, the church I attend, doesn't observe the liturgical calendar, this year we are following Lent and we'll begin an all-church fast.  Last night in our Life Group, we talked about fasting, what it is, and what it isn't.  We talked about our experiences fasting, and about our all-church fast.  One woman is going to fast for the very first time.  Two people in our group plan to begin a liquid diet.

On Saturday, March 12, John Paul, M.D., a doctor who attends our church, will talk about medical aspects of fasting.  If you're reading this before that event and you live in San Diego, you might want to sign up to attend the seminar.

I haven't decided what to fast yet, but I'm learning toward a fast of all animal products from my diet, with a few days of fasting all foods.  Honestly, I find it really hard to fast.  On the other hand, God has shown me unique things every time I have been faithful in surrendering things to him.

Over the next few weeks, I'll probably write many posts on this Lenten theme.  I want to take this time to prepare for Good Friday and Easter.  I want to draw close to God and let him speak to me.  

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