More and more evangelical Christians these days are seeking to engage in the season of Lent in the church year. Here are some brief thoughts offered regarding these practices. This is not all that could be said, nor is it intended as a rejection of the season (which is clearly part of the historic tradition of the church) — merely pastoral advice in response to how some modern evangelicals seem to keep Lent.
— In the Old Testament, God gave Israel a “church calendar,” describing how she was to live in community as the people of God during the year. In that calendar, the Lord commanded Israel to keep something like 80-90 days of feasting (52 Sabbaths, the feast of Passover, the feast of Unleavened bread, the feast of Firstfruits, the feast of Weeks, the feast of Trumpets, and the feast of Booths), and only one day of fasting (The Day of Atonement). Read Leviticus 23 to feel the weight of this ratio. If we emphasize the entire season of Lent as a season of fasting (40 days), we may be in danger of reversing the biblical ratio of days of feasting to days of fasting.
— Biblically speaking, fasting is always (or almost always) done as a sign of repentance regarding a specific sin or asking the Lord to act in some specific way (for example: 2 Sam 12:23, 1 Kings 21:9; 2 Chronicles 20:3, Ezra 8:21, Jeremiah 36:9, Daniel 9, Joel 1 and 2, Jonah 3:5). There does not seem to be any explicit scriptural evidence that regular fasts were part of the piety and regular practice of God’s people (with the exception of the Day of Atonement) until the Pharisees, who apparently considered their regular fasts a mark of high piety (Matt. 6:16, Matt 9:14, Luke 18:12).
— Jesus and his disciples were criticized by the Pharisees for both not fasting enough (Matt 9:14, Mark 2:18, Luke 5:33) and feasting too much (Matt 11:19, Luke 7:34).
— In the Scriptures, there is often a temptation to understand piety before God as fundamentally about “giving up something” or fasting (Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 14:12, Luke 18:12, Matt 6:16). But ultimately, defining piety as what you give up (or don’t do) can be reductionistic, and runs the risk of missing the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). It is easier to give something up than to give yourself in constant service and love to those God has put into your life. We must take care to not mistake the lesser things in the law for the greater— we are commanded by Paul to offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1), and the royal law of the Scriptures is the law of love and service (James 2:8).
— Fasting in the bible means complete abstinence from physical nourishment (i.e. no eating or drinking— see Deut 9:9, 1 Sam 1:6-8, 17-18, Esther 4:16, Jonah 3:8, Luke 4:2). The only partial “fast” in the Bible is found in Daniel 10:2-3, and it is not described as fasting, but rather “mourning.” If you give up chocolate for lent, you may be doing something that is difficult and inconvenient, but Biblically speaking, you are not fasting.
— It is often easier give something up (i.e. fast from food) than it is to do the greater works of Christian spirituality (love, service, feasting). A child is able to fast, but it takes a full grown and mature man or woman to feast well and glorify God. The trajectory of humanity as a race, and the church as the Bride of Christ, is to move from fasting to feasting. When we fast, we do so temporarily, and in order to feast more deeply, and we will feast for eternity (Rev. 19:9).
— Does this mean that it is unlawful or always unwise to engage in a season of fasting? Certainly not. After all, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the housing of feasting” (Ecc. 7:2). But if we engage in fasting during Lent (or other times), we should also remember that “the Son of Man came eating and drinking” (Matt. 11:19), and “the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast” (Matt. 22:2).
— A suggestion: what if, during the Lenten season, we focused less on “giving something up” and more heavily emphasized “taking something on”? What if we as a church fasted one meal a day several times a week and prayed together for the gospel to advance in Islamic nations, or for the practice of abortion to come to an end, or for persecuted Christians to be delivered from their suffering, or for the kings of the earth to bow down and kiss the Son? What if we spent every Sunday during Lent feasting for hours on end with our families and friends on the best food and drink, celebrating the resurrection of Christ and looking forward to the Easter feast? Just some thoughts to consider.
Postscript: Modern evangelical Christians will often “fast” for the forty days of Lent, and then feast only one day for Easter. Why do we seem to find it easier (or better?) to focus our piety on fasting rather than feasting? This emphasis, of course, does not at all follow the practice of the historic church, which has always held that the season of Easter (the time between Easter and Pentecost) is the greatest feast of the church season. If we are going to fast for forty days in preparation for the feast of the Resurrection, then it seems as though we ought to feast just as intentionally, or more so, during the season of Easter.
Here it seems to me that N. T. Wright makes a good point: “Easter is not only our greatest party (much greater by the way than Christmas–whatever you do on Christmas you ought to do ten times as much at Easter); Easter is the only reason we are here at all! So why, when we get to Easter Day, do we not celebrate wildly, lavishly, gloriously, at great length, and with studied disregard for normal propriety?…After forty days of Lenten fasts, and three days of deep and serious concentration on the meaning of the cross, we have precisely one morning of Easter festivities. And then people disappear, exhausted by the rigors of Holy Week, the clergy go on holiday, and the only celebration that is left is eating up the remains of the chocolate Easter eggs!
No, we should make Easter a forty-day celebration. If Lent is that long, Easter should be at least that long, all the way to Ascension. We should meet regularly for Easter parties. We should drink champagne at breakfast. We should renew baptismal vows with splashing water all over the place. And we should sing and dance and blow trumpets and put out banners in the streets. And we should invite the homeless people to parties and we should go around town doing random acts of generosity and celebration. We should be doing things which would make our sober and serious neighbors say, ‘What is the meaning of this outrageous party?’” (from Wright’s sermon, Resurrection and the Calling of the Christian)