Annual church seasons serve as regular reminders of certain aspects of Christianity. Reminders are beneficial, but it seems that the 40-day Lenten practice is incomplete to many in our modern world. Interestingly, a relatively new understanding of the number forty in biblical context suggests that the number represents “a very long time.” But suddenly, in Lent we regress to the literal interpretation of the 40-day length. Instead, we should extend our enriched faith beyond Easter Sunday. Perhaps it is our comfortable lifestyles that tend to prevent us from doing this. Maybe it is the speed at which we fly through seasons, checking off holidays in our planners as they pass. The Church calendar is beautifully cyclical, but as we move through cycles more quickly we seem to be missing the point, as if we were spinning faster and faster on a carousel. The faster we move, the less focus we can place on each season.

Why do we give things up? Why fast? In order to begin to appreciate the gift of abundant life given to us through Christ’s suffering death and resurrection, we practice empathy. We try to inhabit the mind of Christ. We sacrifice, but in sacrificing we should build ourselves up. In living more simply, we live more. We should fast from those things that consume us: that control too much of our time, souls, and bodies. By this cleansing we make room for something that allows us to understand Christ and subsequently deepen our way of life. The word Lent originally meant “spring”. Think of Lent as Spring Cleaning. Also, fasting is personal. We all have our own set of things that consume us, be they pleasures or burdens. Choosing from pleasures may not be enough when considering what we should “give up”. Do not sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake. Let go of something. This will give you empathy for Christ that eventually brings you closer to friendship with God. Zihna Edwards cautions that, “People who equate Lenten sacrifice with a New Year’s resolution are missing the richness of the possibility. We have before us a preparation for Life… and an invitation to die to the things that keep us dead in a little further way. We could make this out to be about chocolate. Or we could ask God what things are getting in our way.” Hopefully by disassembling our lives temporarily we can reconstruct them to a more balanced form. Furthermore, we should consider how others are affected by what eats at us. St. John Chrysostom of the fifth century questioned, “For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?”.  

There is nothing wrong with “giving up” Facebook, chocolate, television, or meat. But Lent is more. Giving up is the first step. Filling that void with a healthier practice, such as prayer or silence, is the second. This is a time of reflection that is sadly trivialized by many. Often it seems that many set a goal to endure six weeks of sacrifice, which becomes a fruitless ritual. We risk becoming more self-absorbed in our attempts at self-denial. Sometimes our motives for fasting during Lent are self-serving. Our intentions are not usually wrong, but we quickly revert to our pre-Lent selves. Lent is a forty-day period to sit down and think—to consider our own lives, God’s incarnate suffering for us, and how the two line up. In a wider context, the liturgical year extends beyond our 365-day symbolic cycle to encompass all of time. So when we mess up, when we are confused—any time of the year can be the humbling days of Lent, and any time the bright rebirth of Easter. It is never too late to begin!

 16When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 16-18)

Anna Mullen is a Junior at Salem Academy where she sometimes writes for Salem’s community paper, Grassroots.