Lent: What and Why

BY BRADLEY YAM

This piece is part of syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. You can read the original piece at https://www.yalelogos.com/home/lent-what-and-why.

What am I giving up for Lent, and why?

Lent is a season in the liturgical calendar of the church, which is to say it is a Christian season – just like winter or summer – with its own rituals. Just like we all gear up to deal with and enjoy the snow come winter, Christians come together to prepare for Easter during Lent. (In fact, “lent” comes from “lencten” which means literally “spring season.”) 

What does that preparation entail? It usually involves prayer and penitence – that is, an introspective reflection into our shortcomings, human failings, and genuine evils and a deliberate effort to turn away from them and toward God. Repentance turns us away from the harmful ways we have learned to be human, and toward the truly good way of being human that is exemplified by the life of Christ. Repentance orients us toward God, and, consequently, toward true goodness.

It also involves fasting. People commonly associate the Lenten season with the question “What are you giving up?” This practice is modelled after Jesus’ own forty days of fasting in the wilderness. Just as Jesus fasted to prepare himself spiritually for his ministry, to inaugurate the kingdom of God by dying for our sins, we fast to prepare ourselves to receive his ministry and find hope in his resurrection. This season, I am giving up looking at digital media in the daytime. For better or for worse, the consumption of information has become enshrined as a daily necessity. Consuming information surely isn’t a bad thing, but just like overconsuming food can be gluttonous, there also exists a gluttony of information. It can take us away from being the embodied human beings that we are made to be and our attention away from the people around us that we have duties to care for and love. Fasting orients us to ourselves and realigns our disordered desires with God’s will and goodness.

It is also essential to rightly orient ourselves toward others. In the Lenten tradition, the virtue of other-centeredness is cultivated through the practice of almsgiving – that is, charitable giving. It is evident that charity is only enabled by truthful orientation toward others. How are we to give charitably (that is, lovingly), if we do not pay attention to the needs of others? Fasting from consuming unactionable digital information on my device allows me to consume relevant local information about my neighbours, and be moved to love. The first step this Lenten season is to pay attention: to the needs of our friends and family, to our local neighbourhood, and then to the global community, and then give generously according to the need. 

The end result of all this activity is surely to uncover our imperfections. We will discover just how unloving and uncharitable to others we really are. We will discover just how little self-control we really have. And when we do discover these things, we must return in penitential prayer to God. At the end of the forty days of experiencing our own weakness, what joy it must be to celebrate the Risen Christ, and know that as he is alive, he is also with us always, healing our wounds, correcting our faults, strengthening us, perfecting us, to the end of the age.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the author.

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