The Point of Lenten Disciplines


By the Revd Dr Scott Cowdell, Canon Theologian, Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn.

The season of Lent extends for forty days from Ash Wednesday. If you don't count the Sundays as days of abstinence, because we don't fast when the bridegroom is with us on the Lord's Day, forty days brings you neatly to Easter Saturday. If you don't believe me that these Sundays are officially free of Lenten disciplines, note that the Prayer book and the Lectionary refer to these as Sundays in Lent, not Sundays of Lent (i.e. not like the Sundays of Advent, Epiphany and Easter). The season excludes the Sundays, though there are seasonal readings and liturgical observations on the Sundays.

The three traditional Lenten disciplines are fasting, almsgiving and prayer, as our readings at the Ash Wednesday Eucharist suggest, also suggesting the motive for these actions. Lent is a penitential season during which the Church prepares for Easter. We resurrection people, we liberation people, have Lent as a gift from God for honest self-appraisal, for facing down the temptations that make us less than the disciples of Christ that we were called and baptized to be. So in Christ and through Christ, during Lent we prepare to meet Christ at Easter.

Lent isn't primarily about abstinence, then, and it's certainly not an arbitrarily focussed exercise in willpower or self-improvement. It's not a marathon concentrating on our own performance and self-denial. We abstain for a different reason: to deepen our prayer and to free-up resources that we can then give away.

How might we understand the Lenten emphasis on fasting today? I'm struck by the new culture of food in our society. You can find apartments in New York nowadays with no kitchen. Our current obsession with food porn on television points to food losing its central role in real life. We lurch between idealizing and romanticizing food, on the one hand, and demonizing it on the other. Food becomes the enemy of health and fitness for many people, with today's new morality concerned with calorific rather than sexual excess. So whatever fasting used to mean, it has to mean something different today.

Up to the mid-twentieth century in Australia, and still in many societies, food preparation was a major part of every day for women, so fasting was as much to do with reducing domestic labour as it was about going without food. Fasting freed women from hours in the kitchen, bringing time to rest, to be alone, to be together, to pray, to visit the Blessed Sacrament. Today, fasting makes less sense when food is often hastily prepared and shovelled down by distracted individuals, perhaps independently of others in the household. I suggest that skinny gym goers should not be fasting in Lent. Likewise, people with little interest in food and drink who give it up for Lent risk missing the point. Abstinence added to parsimony is not about coming to know and serve Christ better. A test of seriousness for the Lenten faster is whether they're prepared to enjoy food and drink on Sundays during Lent in honour of the bridegroom, or whether it's just about them meeting one more challenge embraced with characteristically unwavering drivenness, in a life of trim waistlines and busy schedules. Indeed, our inability to feast today is as big a spiritual issue as our inability to fast.

A new trend today sees fasting in terms of the things that really preoccupy people: social networks, web browsing, constant groping of the smart phone, and texting even while you're talking with other people face to face. Lent can be an opportunity to face the emptiness, restlessness, neediness and personal insecurity that such behaviours reveal. Solitude and real engagement, prayer and real fellowship, are things we might rediscover in a Lent free of such devices.

A student told me recently that in her household she finally wrangled some family time together only to find that spouse and children all brought along their wireless devices and resisted relinquishing them. Maybe in a Lent of IT fasting, families could pray a simple evening office together, play scrabble, go for a walk, visit an elderly relative, read a book, or attend a parish study group. Abstinence is not for Sundays, however, when we can have a breakout, and perhaps start learning to use those devices without being dominated by them. Or what about wearing less makeup in Lent? Or having a fast on going shopping, limiting our discretional expenditure, while embracing some charity as a family project to which we'll all devote the money we save?

The right sort of Lenten abstinence, marked by prayer and personal generosity, can bring us to the point of penitence, of new resolutions, traditionally to the practice of confession in Holy Week, and thus to the experience of Easter as focussed disciples rather than work-and-consumption-glutted escapists, hanging out for our Easter getaway.