Happy, or, maybe sad, Ash Wednesday! Here is a good article over at Mere Orthodoxy on why you should keep eating sausages during Lent. Maybe you should buy an extra sausage since they’re always better with a friend. And here’s another article over there consisting mainly of quotes from wise people who reject common pitfalls that come with observing Lent.
I have no doubt that Lent can be observed wisely and helpfully by the kind of people who recognize the wisdom and cautions in the above articles. Jesus went to Jerusalem to conquer death, so this is cause for celebration and a wonderful reminder to take up our crosses. This is why Lent provokes discussion, because it makes us ask the question: What does it mean to take up our crosses? That is a huge question, but here I only want to briefly address the topic of fasting which is central to the way Lent is typically observed.
The Law of Moses required Israel to fast for one day: “And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you.” (Lev.16:29). The phrase afflict yourselves is also translated, and has been practiced, as fast. So the Old Covenant gave us one day. In the New Testament, Jesus fasts for 40 days in preparation for his ministry, but otherwise fasts are brief occasions of repentance and prayer: Paul fasts at conversion for three days (Acts 9:9); the prophets and teachers at Antioch fast before sending Paul and Barnabas off (Acts 13:3); Paul tells married people not to fast from sex for very long (1 Cor. 7:5).
Fasting might have health benefits, but these are absent from the spiritual motives found in Scripture. Biblical fasting is generally brief and focused intensely on something specific. For Paul, he was repenting of a murderous career of persecution. In Antioch, they were seeking God’s blessing on a missionary work. Paul’s married couples are devoting themselves to prayer. Christians should avoid conflating these purposes with trendy and self-centered fads that revolve around self-improvement. If you want to lose weight, exercise, change habits, good for and more power to you. But it would be good to distinguish this from what Paul and Barnabas are doing. One centers on you; the other on the kingdom.
If Lent provides a particular time to identify a sin and go after it, wonderful. Going after it shouldn’t be 40 days without one little thing, but rather a few days without a big thing. And we shouldn’t put off going after our sins until Lent. Preaching should constantly call us to repent, wake up, take up the mission of the church, and fast. The fasting at Antioch is particularly interesting because although it may be implied that Paul and Barnabas fasted, it’s clear that at least the leaders of that sending church fasted. Not just the sent, but the sending take this up.