Lent is the time we’re supposed to forgo things, right? Television, alcohol, Facebook, dessert. We’ve all heard the commonly asked question, particularly at the start of the forty-day fasting period: “What are you giving up for Lent?”
But why? What’s the point? For some, it’s personal. Fasting exercises a rarely used muscle in the human will—self denial—and giving up a self-indulgent activity can help build character and possibly bring us closer to God.
For others, it’s health. Inspired by the traditional practice of forgoing animal products during the season, some encourage a vegan diet, saying it “improve[s] health, enhance[s] animal welfare and reduce[s] strain on the environment.”
For still others, it’s increasingly about social and political concerns, reaching outside of ourselves to the world around us. That’s what inspired the so-called carbon fast—a daily, intentional curtailment of carbon-emitting activities throughout the Lenten period.
But there’s much more to Lent than giving up x, y, or z. There’s taking on something: Christ. Jesus is the reason for this season, too.
Lent is all about Christ. The forty-day fast, for instance, ties directly back to his forty-day fast in preparation for ministry.
Historically speaking, the Lenten fast precedes Easter as a way of preparing new believers for baptism. Catechumens, typically brought into the Church at Easter time, made their hearts ready by fasting and prayer, the same way Paul did in the ninth chapter of Acts before his baptism. Lent provided time for that and instruction in the faith.
As the end and culmination of Lent, baptism shows us what the fast is ultimately all about. Throughout the Easter seasons the great baptismal hymn from Galatians 3 is chanted:
As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia.
The pre-Lenten lectionary makes the point even more fully. According to the reading from Romans 13, we are to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
Fasting denies the flesh and its desires. But why? For the express purpose of better enabling us to put on Christ, to grow in Christ, to become more like Christ. Fasting is a means to an end. We deny ourselves to transform ourselves. Prayer, reflection, and confession are part of that transformation and fill our plates as we abstain from lesser meats.
To mix metaphors, Lent is the road; Jesus is the destination.
If mere self-denial were the thing, as Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon has reminded, we could get by as Muslims. Ramadan is a perfectly suitable fast for such purposes. But there’s no Jesus in Ramadan. And any number of occasions provides reason to observe and act upon various social, environmental, and political causes.
Don’t misread me. Anything that makes us less self-indulgent and more aware of our responsibilities to our neighbor can be helpful. But let’s not miss the larger goal, the greater reason. The point of the Christian walk is to become like Christ, and Lent—the fasting, the prayers, the repentance, the self-discipline—is there to help us on the journey.