The first time I experienced the Lenten season in church was my senior year in high school. I was attending an Episcopal church with a teacher who was also a friend and surrogate mother to me during a very difficult time at home. As I sat in my first “high church” service, I watched in wonder as the minister and various church officials and young people, all dressed in rather drab robes, carried in wooden crosses and candles while the entire congregation sang a solemn dirge in a minor key. Having no other reference point, I accepted this as normal.
For several weeks, I attended church with my mentor, enjoying the ritual and predictability of each service: at the beginning, we stood and sang melancholy hymns while the entourage carried in the decoration for the altar. On Easter, however, everything I thought I knew to expect was turned upside down.
When the service was about to begin, there was a hushed excitement that I could almost feel. The room was brighter, and I realized for the first time that we had not had the fullness of the lights on in previous weeks. The real shock was when service began and the music started. The huge pipe organ in the loft which had emanated its sober notes in the previous weeks, now threatened to pierce my eardrums with its bright, glorious high notes and major key. The melody we sang was joyful and bouncey. The most dramatic change, however, was the visual feast of the minister and the procession of the crosses. They were beautifully robed in bright white and stunning purple. The wooden crosses were replaced with gleaming brass crosses. The candlesticks held high were also brass and glinted in the bright light of the sun through the stained glass windows. It was stunning. It was the most memorable church service because it was so markedly different from everything I had seen previously.
The splendor of the music and colors and light were magnified due to their absence during Lent. Looking back on that experience, I found a firm understanding of the reason we fast during Lent. When we give something up for the purpose of drawing attention to our Lord’s death and resurrection, it makes Easter an even more profound celebration. Of course, fasting meat, or one meal per day, or Facebook, the internet or TV, for that matter, do not make Jesus’ sacrifice any more or less significant. But what fasting does is provide us a way to put aside something that we consider important in our lives, for the glory of God. The purpose of fasting is to spend the time or money we would normally invest in that sacrificed thing (a meal, time on the internet, money spent on lattes at Starbucks) and invest it in God instead.
Andrew and I have fasted various things over the years. One year, we introduced a rolling fast to our youth group. One week we all fasted sweets, the next week, we all fasted non-worship music, another week, we fasted TV, etc. That was fun for the teens, and it also made the fast something that we did together, with accountability and peer support, so it was good for that age group.
Last year, I fasted Facebook, which was a challenge since I use it multiple times each day. This year, Andrew and I are fasting television. Starting on Ash Wednesday (Feb 13), the TV in the Marshall house will be off until Easter. During that time, we will spend evenings together as we did the last time we fasted television, a number of years ago. It’s a major commitment for us, because we typically have the television on most of the evening. The goal is not just to substitute other meaningless time-sucking activities for the TV; rather, the goal is to invest our time in things that bring glory to God. When we invest in our marriage, in family, in friends, in reading the Bible, theological books, listening to music, and in taking care of ourselves emotionally, we are bringing glory to God. It draws us nearer to him and allows us to hear his voice, recognize his leading, and be sensitive to his presence in a new way.
The sacrifice of fasting during Lent is meant to be done in love. It is designed to be a way to draw near to God – set apart for him in our otherwise busy lives in a new and fresh way for this season. Giving up something for Lent is like taking out all brass crosses and bright colors and replacing them with wood and drab clothes for 40 days. That way, when the Easter service comes, the joyful music, and the glorious, shining message of Christ’s resurrection, will be more vibrant and meaningful than otherwise possible.
For an interesting history on the practice of fasting during the 40 days leading up to Easter, visit this website.