According to a common story found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus does not go right into his ministry following his baptism. Rather, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days, “…so that the devil might tempt him” (Matthew 4:1, CEB translation).
While he was in the wilderness, Jesus fasted until the end of the end of his 40 days, where Satan finally appears to tempt Jesus three times. Each time Jesus refuted Satan until Satan finally leaves him, and angels attend to and take care of Jesus. After this, depending upon which Gospel you are reading, Jesus begins his ministry by either calling his disciples or teaching in the synagogues, and only then proclaiming his message of repentance regarding the Kingdom of God.
It is a really rich story that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Nevertheless, regarding Lent, the idea of fasting for the 40 days prior to Easter arises out of this story. Lent is a time of preparation, where many Christians prepare themselves for the Easter season, a season of hope, joy, and celebration. As such, many symbolically fast and journey with Jesus to prepare for the Easter message, just as Jesus fasted and prepared for his ministry.
Having been raised in the Christian tradition, I too participated in this traditional Lenten fast. I would often give up chocolate or soda in an attempt to “give up” something for Lent while also fulfilling a more self-centered purpose of losing weight or trying to keep up with some sort of New Year’s resolution I had established at the beginning of the year. Sometimes it seemed convenient that if I did not stick with my resolution after the New Year, I could somehow make it part of my Lenten observation. Giving up something for Lent was something I did because that is what Christians I knew did in the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but never anything more than that. To be honest, it never held any real meaning for me during that time.
I can’t remember the exact point in time that my understanding of Lent began to change, or what it was that specifically sparked that transformation of thinking, but it was sometime in college and somehow related to encountering people who “took on” something rather than giving up something for Lent.
Rather than swapping stories about what I or someone else would give up for Lent, I heard stories about people who actually took on a spiritual practice or discipline. It was completely different from what I had encountered before, and it moved me to rethink what Lent actually meant for me.
As I returned to the Gospel story and reflected upon this new type of Lenten observation, I soon realized that giving up something for Lent felt incomplete. Reflecting upon Jesus’ experience in the desert helped me realize what it was that was missing from my own meaningful observation of Lent. Jesus gave up a lot in the Gospel story to fast in the desert, including what was potentially a decent way of life as a carpenter and a stable home. By doing so, however, he was able to take on more time for prayer and reflection to deepen his relationship with God and prepare for his ministry.
Because he fasted, Jesus was able to focus more on his relationship with God. So my thought process began to change towards “If I’m going to give up something for Lent, how is that going to benefit my relationship with God?” For me to be able to faithfully observe Lent, whatever I chose to do had to connect in some way to my relationship with God. Giving up something for Lent did not mean much to me anymore if it did not also somehow help me to focus on my relationship with God. If I am observing a fast, but not following Jesus into that now deserted place to focus on my relationship with God, then am I really honoring Jesus’ time in the wilderness and truly fasting along with him?
So, when Lent comes around each year, I look forward to the chance to intentionally focus on my relationship with God. It is not that I don’t focus on my relationship with God during the other times of the year, but Lent becomes a special challenge to take an extra step and intentionally change some daily habit or portion of my life and devote that to relating to God in a new way. It is hard to give up that thing–whatever it may be–and follow Jesus’ example and spend time in the wilderness, but it is an opportunity to find new life in my relationship. And prayerfully, after I emerge from the wilderness and from my Lenten fast and celebrate the Easter season, I will be re-energized for the ministry and work I engage in.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and can be found at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hole_JesusalDesierto.jpg