Why I fast for Lent

When I tell people I’m fasting for Lent, I typically get a double-take.

“But you aren’t … religious …” is typically the first response. And it’s true that in the way “religious” is generally defined, I’m not. My beliefs, such they are, are far from orthodox. Yet this morning I downloaded the Magnificat Lenten Companion (which will no doubt contain anecdotes I’ll take issue with) and began another Lenten fast.

I began fasting for Lent in 2008. My life felt somewhat directionless, yet I felt something could be right around the corner (turns out it was – I met my wife just after Easter that year). I gave up alcohol and meat that year (alcohol for this oenophile is almost always something I give up), and found myself strangely focused. Giving up normal indulgences made me constantly aware that I was doing something – whatever that something was. And I began to look inwardly for solutions to my challenges.

It’s true I’m not religious in the popular use of that word. But I love ritual, and ritual is older than our newfound (largely Western and Christian) definitions of religion. I love the ritual, seasonal cycle of the liturgical year, and every year, while suffering the hangover from the excesses of consumption that mark the holidays (a ritual balm in the bleak of winter I also greatly enjoy), I find Lent to be the perfect counterpart to that excess—a time to await the advent of spring and a new year with contemplative stillness.

For me, fasting for a period of time after the holidays restores my equilibrium for the remainder of the year.

I realize that fasting is in many ways a first-world luxury. There are people the world over who do without even basic necessities every day; like most Americans, my daily life is spent in the absence of want. Sure, there are things I would buy if I had more money, but by and large if I want a glass of wine, I have one. If I want a new album, movie, or collectible, I buy it. A Lenten fast (this year I am giving up alcohol and nonessential spending) helps to remind me of the basics of the human experience, without the mass consumption that is so much a part of our culture (and I speak as one of its most guilty practitioners).

It’s said that Lent comes from Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, and admittedly, giving up Internet shopping and Australian Shiraz is hardly a trip through the desert. But our oldest Gospel witness, the Book of Mark (1:12-13), says simply:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the desert. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

So before the more commonly known stories found in Matthew and Luke, the Spirit drove Jesus out. But the angels waited on him. He wasn’t alone and helpless, just . . . apart. This time-away-from-reality is depicted as his training for his ministry to come, and in that way the story mirrors hero myths across cultures, wherein the protagonist must leave and travel through wilderness before tackling the mission of his destiny.

For most of us, that mission is merely life’s survival: working, raising children, paying the mortgage (and we’re lucky if that’s all it is). But sometimes it’s nice to focus on the simplicity of those often Sisyphean tasks for six weeks before confronting another year of their challenges.

I’m excited about Lent this year, as I am every year. Life can feel like a grind sometimes; taking some time to appreciate the predictable comfort of that grind helps make it all the more worthwhile.

Don M. BurrowsAbout Don M. Burrows
Don M. Burrows is a former journalist and columnist who is now completing his Ph.D. in classical studies, with a graduate minor in religious studies focusing on early Christian literature. A former Christian fundamentalist, Don is now a member of the United Church of Christ and contends most firmly that the Bible cannot be read or explored without appreciating its ancient, historical context. Don lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two young children. Don blogs at Nota Bene and can also be found on Facebook.

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  • Sheila Warner

    This was a timely article, on Ash Wednesday. I’m home sick, so I’ll miss Ash Wednesday services this year. But I decided (not really on my own, just an inner prompting) to give up cheese. It’s my most favorite food. After my husband got home from work a little while ago, he asked me if I wanted pizza. Cheese! That means no pizza. I’m so used to putting cheese into and onto all my food, that I will have to THINK before I prepare food, and that’s good. It will be a discipline and I will be aware of Lent and what it means to me. Thanks for this one.

    • I’m terrible at the fasting idea of Lent. Its probably because fasting for me holds very negative memories and meaning for me. (yay, growing up in crazy fundy cult) Yet I recognize the difference, and am trying to think of something to do, or not do for the next forty days that will have me focus, and remind me of my being very human, and of God’s love for me…for all of us…a love that God had no problem taking a few decades to walk around as one of us, just so we could better know that God understands what it is like to be very human.

      • Matt

        For years, I was all about self-denial. I denied myself things that I wanted, and things that my body needed–like food, sleep, and human affection. It was almost a very personal competition of how cruel I could be and how much pain I could inflict on myself. I have already been completely alone in some pretty hopeless places. God doesn’t desire me to go back there physically when my heart and mind go back plenty of times over throughout the year.

        So Lent for me has become less a season of denial and more about becoming aware of how okay I am. Just opening up and letting in the unconditional love that scares me so much. Rather than taking away things, I try to take away the harsh standards and self-destructive thoughts that block God’s love for me. Taking walks around my neighborhood and to church helps. There’s a mimosa tree next to a lake that I sit under. It’s nice.

        • So you are denying yourself of the negativity that has found its way into yourself, and replacing it with acceptance, peaceful tranquility and embracing the love of God that has been here for you all along.


  • CroneEver

    I don’t fast from food that much – although I’m trying to fast on Fridays this Lent; what I do is fast from shopping. No shopping but for the necessities – groceries and toilet paper, basically. Works for me.