It’s the Thursday before Easter, and we’re heading home from church, each of us sitting in our own bubbles of silence. The communion service quieted our hearts to ponder Jesus’ last supper with His disciples and the coming crucifixion tomorrow.
“Tomorrow!” My thoughts interrupt. “That means it’s only 3 days until Easter. What should go with the ham? Do Tyler’s pants that match his Easter shirt still fit? Oh, and I need shoes. Yikes. I can’t forget to grab peanut butter eggs and another dozen eggs to dye.”
By the time Easter dinner dishes are piled in the sink and candy wrappers lay on the dining table, I’m ready to sit down. That’s when I wonder what happened to Easter. How could I have let the celebrations hijack the resurrection? I hate to admit it, but during the Easter service, I tried to conjure gratitude and joy, but I hear the message so often and seem to have grown unresponsive. I wasn’t prepared, at least not in my heart.
I practice Advent to prepare for Christmas. Why not prepare for Easter? Is Lent a Biblical practice?
Scholars believe the early church prepared for Easter by fasting, self-examination, and repentance. In 325, church leaders met and decided on a church-wide, 40-day preparation period, called Lent, but how Christians fasted was not nailed down.
Why 40 days? Forty is a significant number found throughout scripture. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Rain fell for forty days while Noah floated with a zoo. Jesus fasted 40 days in the desert before beginning His ministry. Some lessons cannot be learned without a long passage of time. The long struggles and long-term projects in my past produced more lasting impressions than events quickly hurdled.
Why fast? Fasts populate the pages of scripture. Here are a few instances.
- Nehemiah fasted and repented on behalf of his countrymen and prayed for God to grant success in rebuilding Jerusalem. (Nehemiah 1:4-11)
- Paul fasted after his blinding, encounter with Jesus to repent, to seek truth, and to discern the Lord’s leading. (Acts 9:1-9)
- Leaders fasted and prayed before sending Paul and Barnabas on mission and when appointing elders. (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23;
- Anna fasted and prayed to commune with God and worship him. (Luke 2:37)
- Jesus fasted and prayed to resist temptation and to prepare for ministry. (Matthew 4:2)
Food fasts are most common in the Bible. Food is a primal need that speaks to us with more intensity than giving up something such as social media. (I can hear some of you disagreeing with me about that!) Food fasting affects us bodily, our stomach gurgles and our mouth waters. We engage more than our minds in our worship.
Today, some people choose to take up a new action instead of giving up something. A fast or new intention is not meant to change or create a habit, though it may. Its purpose is to grab our attention, prompting us to pray throughout each day. Whether we’re tempted to renege on our fast, have failed or triumphed, we talk to our Lord about our need for Him, His worth which trumps all desires, and His love shown in His never-ending grace and mercy. After 40 days of these prayers, our understanding of His love for us seeps deep within us.
I don’t observe Lent every year. Some years too many difficult events have transpired or I’m too distracted. I also don’t want Lent to become a legalistic must-do ritual. The years I have engaged in it, though, ballooned my thankfulness for Jesus’ death and resurrection into renewed joy. Lent has especially been meaningful when I engaged in it with others through Bible Study, mutual encouragement, and accountability.
Beating ourselves up will not rekindle our love for God, but owning our sin is the first step to “getting” the significance of his astonishing love for us. How we hate that word, yet until we can admit our sin and see the injurious ripples it inflicts, we cannot grasp the depth of Jesus’ love for us. The degree to which we recognize our faults and the corresponding love which paid for the them, the more we love in return. We see this in Luke 7:47:
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much; but the one who is forgiven little loves little.”
Jesus doesn’t want our shame or sacrifice. He wants our amazed love in response to his amazing love. Isn’t that what we all want? Throughout church history, Lent has been a helpful tool for enlivening that love. This year, when April 21 rolls around, I want to be ready.
About the Author:
Suzanne is a Christian writer of blogs and creative non-fiction essays. Formerly a stay-at-home mom, science teacher, and reference librarian, she has taught numerous women’s Bible Studies throughout thirty-seven years in the PCA, where her husband, Mike, is a deacon. She wrote A Bible Study for Your Easter Journey, a companion to her devotional, Running to the Empty Tomb, both sold in the PCA Bookstore. Her blog and links to other published articles may be found at SuzanneDMarshall.com