The age of consent in my family when it came to church attendance was eleven, synonymous with entering “big school”. Up until then I occasionally went with my mum to the Methodist church she belonged to. I don’t remember a whole lot other than getting told off for playing poker dice on the back pew with my brother. But now, I can’t but suspect that something good was put into me over that time, albeit unbeknown to me. On reaching the magic age of eleven, though, I dropped out, and that was that for church for the time being.
Apart from Lenten lunches, that is. Every year, on at least one or two Sundays during Lent, as a family we would troop down to one of the two churches that organized this and forgo our roast beef and Yorkshire pudding – always served with lashings of gravy, of course – and instead eat a “Lenten lunch”. This was normally came in the form of soup and a bread roll, though there were probably other bits that I have long since forgotten. The idea was that you ate less and gave the money you would have spent on Sunday dinner to Christian Aid or some other charity working with undernourished populations the world over. I never went hungry – seconds (or thirds!) of soup and extra rolls saw to that, and we were always allowed biscuits when we got home – but did learn to be grateful for what we have, and what so many in this world do not have: food in their bellies.
Other than that token observance, Lent has never been part of my own life or faith. I never even really noticed it until I went to live in Spain, where much was said about Lent, but very little done beyond pious lip-service and a few surface traditions. A few took it seriously, with penance and fasting meant to heighten awareness of Jesus own suffering. But for most, the real meaning of Lent has pretty much disappeared. Carnival time is about all that is left now, when people in past years would have used up all the eggs, butter and other “goodies” they had in the house in readiness for 40 days of simpler fare. Needless to say, today’s carnival is more an excuse for a party than anything of real spiritual significance.
Whatever we think about Lent, the rhythms of life are useful. We are used to days and seasons (the days are getting longer, yippee!) and the cyclical nature of our year is mirrored in the Christian calendar. Celebrations such as Christmas and Easter help us remember the fundamental truths of our faith.
However, giving up chocolates won’t automatically do anything for your spirituality. (Or even your waistline, for that matter!) For any action to be meaningful it has to include a deliberate focus on “the reason for the season”. Lent isn’t about going hungry, stopping doing something that you really would rather do, or making any other “sacrifice”. It’s more about allowing your everyday world around you to lead your heart and thoughts towards Jesus.
In that way, fasting is not about feeling hungry – it’s about allowing our stomach to “pray”, usually with “groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26)! Any self-imposed restrictions do not bring us closer to God but remind us of the eternal God who emptied himself to become one of us as he took on our humanity. And choosing to give something up has no value in and of itself but rather helps us live in awareness of the God who gave up everything to live amongst us, die for us, and take us with him back to eternity.
So, whatever else Lent may mean for you, do allow it to point you towards that “hinge of history”, Jesus’ death, and to learn to appreciate what he did for us and all that this means. Nothing we do that helps us know and love him more is wasted. Not even a Lenten lunch.
Neil worked for many years as International Director with World Horizons, and in September 2012 moved to Ormskirk, UK to become minister of CLM Church. Sold out on incarnation as a foundation for Christ-like life and ministry, Neil works to help other Christians engage with the world around us in culturally relevant and transparent ways. Check out his blog Eating With Sinners.