A little hunger is good for the soul, enlarging our appetite for God.
Remember the Israelites wandering the desert for 40 years? God lets them experience hunger before feeding them with that odd manna to make them understand that, as he puts it, “one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3). And Jesus quotes this same verse when he counters the devil’s taunt to turn stones to bread during his 40 days of fasting in the desert after his baptism. Less food leads to more of God.
And this, essentially, is why many Christians give up something for Lent.
You may be scratching your head, so let me explain a bit about Lent and how God might use it in your spiritual life this semester.
Lent is one of the spiritual seasons in what’s called the Christian calendar.1 Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and runs for the 40 days (excluding Sundays) that lead up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Why this centuries old practice? For one thing, the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection is so deep and the celebration of these gospel events so important that we do well to fully prepare our hearts. Too easily, these holy days can sneak up on us and we end up skating across their surface instead of plunging into their depths.
How can we prepare? Ash Wednesday sets the tone. On March 5, the day after Mardi Gras, you might notice a number of people on campus with a cross-shaped smudge on their foreheads. They will have been at an Ash Wednesday service where the priest or pastor marks them with these words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Dust and ashes! These symbolize two themes at the heart of Lent: our creaturely mortality and our moral culpability. In other words, we are finite and sinful. During Lent, we choose to dwell on these truths about ourselves and to adopt a posture of humility and simplicity before God.
Fasting is the major spiritual discipline that Christians all over the world practice in some form during Lent.2 In this, we follow the example of Jesus in the desert (Luke 4), denying ourselves something good for a period in order to more vividly know something better. We want to experience Jesus as the true source of our sustenance and being. Less becomes more!
So here is the invitation for these next six weeks: quietly give up something that has a little too much importance in your life as a way of redirecting some of your spiritual attention to God. It could be food (I fast each Friday during Lent) or it could be another substance, such as sweets (I forgo Starbucks) or a certain activity like television or shopping (some take a break from—gasp!—social media). Maybe you will covenant with a few friends or your small group to do this—and later debrief your experience together.
One spiritual writer suggests: “In a more tangible, visceral way than any other spiritual discipline, fasting reveals our excessive attachments and the assumptions that lie behind them.”3 Keeping Lent loosens some of these unhealthy attachments and puts us in touch with greater hungers—for authentic friendship, for truth, goodness and beauty, for spiritual centeredness, for intimacy with our Creator.
Remembering our human vulnerability and sinfulness will put us in a place of profound gratitude as we come to Holy Week with its wondrous mysteries: the God who died and rose for us, who feeds us the true food of his body and blood, who satisfies our deepest desires with himself.
May it be so for you!