What shall we give up for lent? This week there are many Christians that will observe Ash Wednesday and the customary season of Lent that follows. Done correctly and in good faith, this practice can truly be one of the most rewarding experiences in a Christian’s journey. Done incorrectly or without adequate prayer, the Lenten fast will disappoint. Certainty, God loves us so much that we can hold fast to the hope; God wants us to triumph in Lent!
Lent and Ash Wednesday originated in the Second Century as an intentional time of purification, preparation, and prayer anticipating the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. Over time, it grew from being a few days in duration, to the customary 40 day observance that is common today. The designation of 40 days comes from the Biblical symbolism of 40 as a time of purification and preparation. Moses and Elijah each fasted 40 days prior to meeting God on the mountain. Jesus fasted 40 days in the desert prior to starting his public ministry. In the days of Noah, the purifying rains fell for 40 days, thus bringing on the flood. In order to prepare the people of God for entry into the Promised Land, God had the Hebrews wander in the desert for 40 years. Additionally, after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he remained on earth in his resurrected body for 40 days in preparation for his ascension into heaven.
The actual season of Lent begins 46 days before Easter Sunday. On Ash Wednesday, Christians may gather in various churches to receive the symbolic reminder of our own mortality with the sign of a cross on the forehead from consecrated ashes. Commonly, the ashes are created from burning the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. The ashes serve as a solemn reminder that our life on this earth is limited, yet crowned in resurrection. Our goal, therefore, is to live life as faithfully as possible, living out of our genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.
The actual 40 days of Lent are calculated by taking the 6 weeks following Ash Wednesday and excluding Sundays. Traditionally, the Sunday worship is considered a feast day and a day of unquestioned celebration of God’s love so they were excluded from the Lenten count many centuries ago.
The Lenten fast itself is more governed by personal prayer or confession than any explicit set of rules or scriptures. The basic guideline is to give up something that an individual can identify as a hindrance or stumbling block to faith. Some fast from TV, Internet, or Social Media. Some from news. Others may choose a food item such as meat or candy. Others may choose to fast from intimacy with their spouse, participation in a particular activity, or from certain behaviors.
The object of the fast, however, is not as important as the reason for the fast. Physical, Spiritual, and Emotional purity before God, drawing closer to God, or rededicating ourselves to God are ideal reasons to declare a fast. For example, if one fasts simply to lose weight or to quit smoking, they may be fine ideas for health reasons, but the primary focus in on the individual rather than on God. Yet, if someone wishes to have more energy, physical ability, time and money to devote to God and the cost of smoking or the drain of poor physical fitness is an issue, such a fast has great potential.
Additionally, when a person gives up something for Lent, it is important that the time, money, energy, or devotion previously invested in what has been given up be reinvested in prayer, study of the Scriptures, and worship. Most importantly, it must not be an arbitrary decision or one chosen because we want to fit in with others. In planning your Lenten fast, pray earnestly, seek Godly council of a trusted mentor in the faith, and make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Remember, God will rejoice in your triumph—a triumph that God will make possible through your faith!