On Sunday, the Twitter user “⫷ † SavedGrace† ⫸” complained that since she couldn’t find Lent mentioned in the Bible, she doesn’t observe it. To which the Catholic website Rorate Caeli replied, “Cannot find ‘bible’ in the Bible either.”
I piled on by noting that “Trinity” and “Incarnation” aren’t in the Bible either.
It’s a silly argument. Just because something isn’t named in the Bible, it doesn’t follow that Christians should avoid it. On the contrary, a practice could still very well be grounded in Christian theology and history. It could still have great spiritual benefit that has stood the test of time. And it could help Christians work together for a common good.
Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday (tomorrow) and ends just before Easter, is surely at the top of the list of such practices. Christians have been observing this long period of fasting and penance before Easter for many, many centuries.
Where Lent Came From
Of course, the detailed fasts tied to the Church calendar took a while to develop. The earliest fasts were probably the fasts on the Wednesday and Friday — marking off the day Jesus was betrayed and crucified. Early on, many Christians also began to fast with catechumens during the six weeks leading up to their baptism and reception into the Church at Easter. This was perhaps the first instance of truly communal fasts and coincided roughly with Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Over the same period, a devotion had grown up around the idea of Jesus’ forty hours spent in the tomb. That number forty, of course, reflects a common biblical theme. In the time of Noah, it rained for forty days. Moses fasted for forty days before receiving the Ten Commandments. The Jews wandered in the desert for forty years, while Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days. It’s no wonder, then, that by the seventh century, a forty-day Lenten fast starting with Ash Wednesday and ending at Easter had become common throughout Christendom.
By the time of the High Middle Ages, Christians were observing a long Lenten fast that reflected these two early practices. If you count the days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, though, you’ll count 46 days — Lent’s 40 fast days plus six Sunday feast days. Every Sunday is a mini-feast because that’s the day our Lord rose from the dead. And Lent culminates with Easter, the great feast of the resurrection.
Unlike the great feast of Christmas, the secular world mostly ignores Easter (except for candy and the Easter bunny). And the world passes over in silence the long season of fasting and penance that precedes Easter — Lent. The only culture vestige of it is Mardi Gras — the big party that comes right before Ash Wednesday — the first day of Lent.
That makes sense. We all like to party, but most people just don’t like to fast.
So why have most Christians throughout history observed Lent? Simple: They sought to identify with Christ’s suffering during his long road to Jerusalem that culminates with His death on the cross. It’s a time of preparation before Easter, just as Jesus prepared for his earthly ministry with a forty day fast in the desert. The Lenten fast is not done privately, though, but together as the Body of Christ. Trust me: if you do this in a serious way, you’ll experience Easter in a whole new way.
Unfortunately, this type of fasting has fallen on hard times. Many evangelicals fast individually, and Catholics still recognize certain fast days — though typically these are just vestigial fasts. Only the Eastern Christian traditions still retain robust communal fasts during these periods. For much of Orthodox Lent, for instance, the faithful eat a vegan diet. Check out the Greek Orthodox fasting schedule for 2019 here to get a sense of it.
What Should We Do?
Should Protestants and Catholics adopt one of the Eastern fasts — which vary from one region to another? That would be better than what we’re doing now. Still, I doubt there’s one best way to keep a Lenten fast. Any detailed, universal fast might seem arbitrary. For instance, what it means to give up the meat of land animals on Fridays has changed over time and place. It would have been a real sacrifice for shepherds far from the ocean or other bodies of water. But these days, eating fish rather than, say, a hamburger, is just a slight inconvenience.
Since the Eastern fasts have persisted for so long, though, we could do much worse than to follow them.
In any case, we should all try to do something meaningful and sacrificial. If you’re not sure what to do or where to start, check out my series on fasting. It’s arranged in reverse chronological order, so you’ll want to read from the bottom up. (I have a book coming out on the topic, that goes into much more detail. But it’s not out yet.)
Freely and in Unison
We know that God wants us to fast and pray. So, does that mean that churches should mandate Lenten fasting, specifying what and when to eat? I don’t know, but it seems unlikely in any case. But there’s an alternative: What if millions of faithful laity and clergy freely decided to observe Lent with fasting, prayer, and special spiritual practices?W
What if churches encouraged this, without requiring all the details? What if Christians of all stripes suddenly took up these practices and prayed in unison, as Christ prayed in John 17? What would happen if we channeled our extra time and hunger into fervent prayers to the Lord to renew His Church and to deliver us from evil? Might the Lord send His Spirit in a new and powerful way, and renew our Land, which is in dire need of another Great Awakening?
We’ll never know unless we try.