Making Lent matter
The following article was submitted by the Public Theology Forum, an ecumenical group of ministers and theologians.
When Lent, the 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, was first observed in the 4th Century, its focus was on self-examination and self-denial in preparation for Easter. Christians used fasting (abstaining from eating food) in the early years as a visible demonstration of this process.
Over the centuries, Roman Catholics have relaxed some of the strict fasting rules. Today, only Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays during Lent are considered fasting days. On these days, Roman Catholics over the age of 14 are to refrain from eating meat. Historically, this practice was meant to help unify people who could afford meat with poor people who couldn't.
Orthodox Christians are far more rigorous in their observance of fasting during Lent, believing that regular fasting is a crucially important discipline for one's spiritual growth. Meat, dairy products, and eggs (which historically were considered more luxury foods than ordinary breads) aren't allowed, with some additional restrictions on certain days. They can only eat fish (which was historically considered less of a luxury than red meat) on the feasts of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday.
giving up something pleasurable
In addition to refraining from eating, Lent is often a time when Christians give up something pleasurable (furthering the focus on self-denial), be it chocolate, meat or coffee. Some Protestant denominations (such as Anglican and Episcopalian) observe Lent, but many Protestant churches attach less significance to the Lenten season than to the individual holy days leading up to Easter.
In Isaiah 58, the prophet offers a critique from inside the community of faith of Israel. There was much business in the worship and religious life of the community of Israel. Passers-by could observe the long line of persons journeying to the temple day after day, and week after week. Smoke was constantly billowing from the compound as the priests were busy offering sacrifices on the altar. People were paying their tithes and ensuring their families kept the Sabbath. From the sheer look of things, worship and religious life in Israel seemed to be progressing well, just as many of today's churches are growing leaps and bounds. Yet, something was missing. What was it?
In the case of Israel, the prophet says not much critique was being offered from inside the experience of faith. Because the practice of faith became routine, people were no longer applying the mind to what they were doing. They were engaging in mindless or rote worship and the result was disastrous for the nation of Israel.
While much emphasis was placed on the practice of worship, the social fabric of the nation was going to pieces as the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the oppressed were all regulated to a place of non-existence as their lives were being treated as less and less important.
In a society in which the pursuit of material and selfish gain was receiving more and more importance, the value of human life, especially among the most vulnerable, was receiving less attention. Through the prophet Isaiah, God takes a stand against Israel; things in the community of faith are not what they ought to be and God is not a happy camper. So here the prophet says, "... On the day of your fasting you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife and in striking each other with wicked fists." In other words, selfishness was rampant in the community and there was no one but God and the prophet offering critique of the practice of faith.
correcting false approach to worship
Three things the prophet suggests are necessary to correct the false approach to worship or the practice of faith that was taking place. First, they are to practise the art of giving. Give yourself on behalf of the hungry. In this case, there is no escaping the reality of hungry people in the society. People who can hardly make ends meet. People who find it difficult to pay the bills at the end of the month; those searching for jobs, which seems a never-ending exercise in futility. Pensioners who find it more and more difficult to make ends meet as the cost of living exceeds their real income.
In the midst of such challenges, the community of faith is invited to practise the art of giving so that everyone within the community of faith, especially the poor and vulnerable, finds a reason to go on living.
Second, people in the community should practise the art of supporting each other as people of faith. Additionally, self-interest must give way to caring for those outside the community of faith. If giving is designed to focus on the people of God, support is designed to focus the community on those outside the community of faith.
In other words, religion is not a social club designed to satisfy the whims and fancies of members; rather, religion is designed to enable its adherents to look beyond the self to the needs of others, and, ultimately, to God, who is the source of all things.
Finally, if people of faith practise the art of giving and supporting people in and outside the community of faith, they will witness the unfolding of the gracious presence of God in their midst.
Here is how the prophet Isaiah describes the consequence of giving and supporting, "... then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noon day." In other words, for the people of God, when God becomes the focus of what we do and say daily, giving and supporting people will become second nature to us.
Lent, which is a time for us to immerse ourselves in prayer, fasting and giving of alms, is designed to cultivate within us the art of giving and supporting so that the presence of God can be fully made known in and through us.
Giving and supporting, which can result in the experience of God's revelation or unfolding in our midst, can take place as people draw near to the altar of God in the sanctuary of their hears. Lent is a time for individuals, communities and nations to pause and pay keen attention to individual and collective hearts and ensure they are geared towards the common good.
giving of oneself
Such pursuit requires a commitment to give and support people inside and outside the community of faith. In a symbolic way, it means joining in worship with the hungry, homeless, destitute, lonely and sad as we give and provide support in whatever was is possible.
Beyond this symbolic act, however, is the call to constantly give and provide support for people so that God's light may shine through both the giver and the receiver.
Lent is as good a time as any to make a commitment to make a difference in the lives of people. Whatever we plan to do should inspire us to give and support others so that the light of God or the presence of God will shine through and possibly draw others into what it means to be a people of faith who faithfully keep Lent. Lent is not just for the benefit of those who keep the fast; it benefits a wide variety of people, since by denying oneself, others benefit in return.
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