Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry. [Matthew 4:1-2 (NLT)]
For many in the Christian community, last Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, a season in remembrance of the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness and was tempted by Satan. For them, Lent is a penitential season of repentance, fasting, and self-denial leading up to Easter. The idea of fasting as a form of preparation for Resurrection Sunday comes from Jesus’ statement, “But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them; and when that day comes, they will fast,” found in Mark 2:20.
Pope Benedict XVI referred to Lent as a “long ‘retreat’ during which we can turn back into ourselves and listen to the voice of God, in order to defeat the temptations of the Evil One.” On the other hand, Protestant reformer John Calvin disparaged Lent. Arguing that Jesus taught no specific times of fasting, he called Lent “merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which sets up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ….” Observing Lent isn’t God-ordained; it is a personal decision each Christ follower makes. Nevertheless, I think N. T. Wright’s take on this season makes a good case for some sort of Lenten practice: “Lent is a time for discipline, for confession, for honesty, not because God is mean or fault-finding or finger-pointing but because he wants us to know the joy of being cleaned out, ready for all the good things he now has in store.”
The church I attended as a girl observed Lent. During this pre-Easter season, the cross over the altar was covered with a purple veil (until Good Friday when it was covered in black), the minister wore purple vestments, our church held pot-lucks and Bible studies Wednesday evenings, every night I placed a coin in a cardboard coin holder that would be collected Easter Sunday, and I resigned myself to no more gum or chocolate until Easter morning. Although the way I observe this season has changed, I continue to do so today.
While those who observe Lent may fast from things like certain meals or foods, social media, sweets, coffee, alcohol, television, eating out, or gaming, the season should never be more about fasting than our relationship with God. Lent is more than a season of putting away the unpleasant, unhealthy, harmful, or superfluous; it’s a season of creating good things and becoming better and more faithful. It’s as much about growing as it is about decreasing. Many people do things like donating the money they would have spent at the coffee shop or bakery to charity, doing service projects, or including additional Bible reading, devotions, a book study, or Scripture memorization to their routine.
That forty-day fast Jesus took in the wilderness, however, wasn’t his first one! It merely was a continuation of one that started in Bethlehem when God chose to take on flesh. Rather than fasting from food, Jesus fasted from Heaven to live on earth. He gave up His godliness in all its perfection to subject Himself to the limitations, weaknesses, and indignities of humanity. He knew hunger and cold; He burped, spit up, cried, and even peed and pooped in his swaddling cloths. He had to learn to crawl before he could walk and probably bumped his head and skinned his knees along the way. That was God who had to learn the alphabet and how to count. The One who was there at the beginning of time gave up Heaven to endure stubbed toes, bruises, and blisters. He experienced exhaustion, insect bites, sweating, and runny noses, and probably suffered through more than one case of dysentery. He fasted from the heavenly host’s songs of praise only to be doubted, hated, conspired against, and mocked. By the time Jesus went into the wilderness at the beginning of His ministry, He’d been abstaining from Heaven around 30 years and that fast continued until His last day when He was beaten mercilessly, hung on the cross, crucified, and died.
Giving up that morning latte at Starbucks or giving a few hours a week to the food pantry don’t seem like much when we think of all He gave up for us!