Lent has begun this week here in my little corner of liturgical Luther-land. It’s the time of year the alt Germans call Fastenzeit: the fasting time.
Around this great globe, Christians belonging to any one of several older church traditions are even now foregoing various worldly comforts in order to focus on repentance and spiritual growth.
I love Lent (though perhaps appreciate is a better word here than love), and I’ve regularly observed the season since I was a teenager by temporarily “giving up” or “adding in” various vices or virtues. One year I gave up sweets. Another year I gave up television. I’ve given up pop and alcohol and biting my nails; I’ve added in exercise and water drinking and Bible reading. One year I even resolved to floss my teeth daily throughout the forty days of Lent. (Don’t ask.)
Lent has become a kind of “New Year’s Resolution — Take Two” for me. As I wrote last year in an EerdWord post describing our TV-turnoff Lent:
Lent is an ideal time to engage in a little self-improvement, for practical as well as spiritual reasons. It falls in a gray time of year (at least in Michigan), at the end of a long, stagnant winter. By the time the snow mostly melts and Lent begins, we’re in the mood to see some real growth — some change for the better — both in the weather and in our lives.
What’s more, Lent begins approximately one month after we’ve finally ditched the last of our New Year’s resolutions, and it presents us with a convenient opportunity to go about improving ourselves on a holier and yet more modest scale: since Lent is only six weeks long, a Lenten fast feels much more manageable than those “forever-and-always” New Year’s promises we make to ourselves.
All that still rings true nearly twelve months later, but I have lately begun to wonder if, even so, I might be missing out on something — something that used to be considered an essential part of Fastenzeit. You know: the fasting part.
As Terry Mattingly points out in his Get Religion post “Where did this American Lent come from?”:
While it is true that “many people” give up “one thing” during Lent, this is not a fasting tradition that is — as far as I have been able to discover — found in the teachings of any particular church.
Terry goes on to describe the increasingly popular “giving up stuff for Lent” thing as a “Tradition Lite” – lite on history, lite on tradition, and lite on real theological significance to most of the churches that care about Lent the most.
Paul McCain over at the Cyberbrethren blog has also done some heavy thinking about Lent and fasting recently. His article “When You Fast” provides some excellent Christian reflections about the Bible’s (and the Lutheran Confessions’, if you happen to be into that kind of thing) teaching on fasting. Most interesting to me at the moment, though, is a point he makes in his post “Fastenzeit is Here!”:
While “giving up something for Lent” has become a popular substitute for fasting, let’s be sure we are clear on what fasting is. Fasting means not to eat as much. To forego a meal, or a portion of a meal, and to do so with intentionality and to let that time of hunger pain remind us to watch and pray, to remind us that our hunger should not be for bread alone, but every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Fasting is simply to be an aid for our devotional life in the Word and prayer.
(So, help me get this straight: is Rev. McCain trying to tell me that my flossing every day throughout Lent ’06 shouldn’t technically be considered fasting? Yeah, that’s kind of what it sounds like to me, too. Huh.)
The point both bloggers want to make is this: American Christians (myself included) have, as we have in so many other ways, tried to personalize and tailor Lenten fasting to our own tastes — and to our own desires for personal self-fulfillment.
Yet however we may contort it to fit our own life experience, the word fasting still means exactly what is always has: “willingly abstaining from some or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time.” (Gee, thanks for that, Wikipedia!)
The Wikipedia page on fasting, you’ll note, also includes a rather long list of religious traditions (both within and beyond my beloved Christian faith) that encourage or even require religious fasting (according to this more traditional definition) in some way or another.
Each of those faiths has a longstanding (dare I say it?: old fashioned) tradition of “willingly abstaining from some or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time.” Not one that I know of has a “give up biting your nails for forty days” tradition.
This is not to say I’m planning to give up giving things up for Lent any time soon. It’s been too useful a spiritual practice in my life for me to lay it aside entirely.
However, in addition to this year’s batch of specialized Lenten disciplines I’ll be adding at least one proper fast (according to the old fashioned sense of the word). One day not long from now, I’m planning to abstain from food for twenty-four hours — and I plan chronicle my experience here.
I know that those of you familiar with the Bible will now be tempted to throw Matthew 6:16-18 at me:
16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Fair enough, Bible scholars: you’ve got me. Fasting is, of course, best done privately, at least according to Christian teaching. It may help you to know, however, that this single day of semi-public fasting is intended primarily for journalistic purposes. Anything else I may or may not do to observe Lent this year, I intend to keep pretty much between me and God. (Would it be weird to insert a cheeky cybergrin here? Probably.)
I’ll be back in a few days to let you know how it went.
Oh, and if you missed my post on Three Square Meals (and with it, a discussion of exactly how much I like to eat food) check it out. You’ll understanding immediately why this week’s adventure may not be all that fun or easy for me.
Read the recap for this adventure here.