“Lent is here, we can’t eat meat. Lent is here, we have to put soy milk in our coffee. Lent is here, don’t tell anyone that that’s milk chocolate, not dark chocolate. Lent is here, we can’t eat Cool Ranch Doritos, we have to eat Sun Chips instead.”
For too many people, Lent is all about food. "Don’t eat this and don’t eat that. Stay away from this and don’t even think about that." Food food food. For a season that is supposed to simplify our lives and our eating habits, it sure seems like we spend a lot of time talking (and thinking) about food.
But is Lent supposed to about food? Is that what this is all about? Or do we maybe have this thing backwards?
I’ve written before about how I prefer to think about Lent as a journey, not as a season. A season has no value; it means something that just happens to be here today because the calendar says it’s supposed to be here. No big deal.
Unfortunately, that’s how many of us approach Lent – as a season that comes around every year and we just have to make a few changes in our life to fit the season.
Winter season is here: put away the flip flops and get out the heavy coats. Winter season is over: get the flip flops back and bury those heavy coats in the attic.
Lent season is here: put away the hamburgers and pull out the veggie burgers. Lent season is over: get those veggie burgers out of my sight and bring me some meat!
Is that what Lent is? Just a season where we change our diet and that’s it?
I know it sounds strange, but I actually believe Lent has nothing to do with food (did he just say that?). I believe that food should be the last thing we focus on during Lent (has he lost his mind! That’s ALL we focus on!). And furthermore, I actually believe that fasting can be a distraction from the true purpose of Lent (he’s a HERETIC!).
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t fast (nice try though); I’m saying that if we don’t fast the proper way, our fast will actually have the opposite effect in terms of fulfilling the purpose of Lent.
Because Lent is not about food. It’s a journey to the most important event in the history of all mankind…the feast of Pascha (aka Easter).
In this book, The Lenten Spring, Fr. Thomas Hopko writes:
“The Lenten spring is welcomed by Christians in the Church not as the time for self-inflicted agony or self-improving therapy… It is accepted as the great and saving forty days, set apart for complete and total dedication to the things of God.”
That is what Lent is all about – complete and total dedication to the things of God. It’s not about complete and total dedication to a strictly vegan diet, making sure there’s no egg whites in your bread or there’s no whey in your Oreos. Watering down Lent to simply reading food labels minimizes what the journey is all about.
And in fact, our brothers in the Eastern Orthodox Church have a beautiful reminder of this in their pre-Lenten season. Every year, just before the start of Lent, they read the gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee, which highlights the fact that the man who boasted that “I am not like other men…I fast twice a week” was not the man who “went down to his house justified.”
But rather it was the other man – the one who cried “God be merciful to me a sinner!” – whom the Lord held up as a model for us to follow. Why? BECAUSE LENT IS NOT ABOUT FOOD!
If all we do this Lent is change our diet, then we are truly the most pitiable of all people. Instead, we need to approach this Lent with a new attitude – one of expectancy and preparation for something BIG to happen.
Fr. Hopko again says:
"The Church welcomes the Lenten spring with a spirit of exultation… with the expectancy and enthusiasm of a child entering into a new and exciting experience.”
Did you hear those words? We should approach Lent with exultation, expectancy, and enthusiasm. He described Lent as an “exciting experience” (he obviously like words that begin with the letter ‘E’).
If all you do is think about fasting, then none of those descriptions apply to your Lent.
So my advice?
Carve some time out of your schedule this Lent to spend with God – in “complete and total dedication to the things of God.”
If that means you skip a meal, then so be it. Maybe you’re better off skipping breakfast and using that time to spend with God in prayer. Or instead of going out to lunch, maybe you’d be better served by eating something simple at your desk and spending the rest of your lunch hour in His Word.
Now THAT'S what Lent is truly supposed to be about. It’s not about the food; it’s about God and being willing to give up earthly things in order to attain heavenly ones.
That won’t happen through veggie burgers, no matter how many you eat. :)
For discussion: what helps you focus on the right things during Lent?