Lent and Learning / We Fast Before We Feast

September 25, 2015  |  Sean Mortenson

I grew up Catholic. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I grew up participating in the practices of the Catholic Church. I repeated prayers and creeds, went to confession and through confirmation, all without truly understanding the significance of any of it.

The truth is, I wasn’t a Christian at the time. And when I finally came to understand the Gospel and embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior it was not in the Catholic faith. I was a freshman in college and I immediately immersed myself in non-denominational evangelical Christianity. In that context, with what I perceived as true understanding and a real, personal faith, I wanted to reject everything about the Catholicism I had “come out of”. Because I wasn’t theologically discerning yet, what that really meant was that I rejected the forms and traditions of Catholic worship. My reaction wasn’t limited to Catholicism though; I was suspicious of any ritual or practice that felt like it was rooted in the historical church, be it Lutheran, Orthodox, or Presbyterian. 

But as I grew in the Lord I began to gain a deeper understanding of not only theology, but also things like church history and the beautiful diversity of the Body of Christ. It helped me to be more humble and less dogmatic. That is to say, I began to see aspects of the faith found in traditions other than my own – now Reformed Protestant – as potentially edifying and beautiful. I began to meet people from other traditions, including Catholic, that weren’t just mindlessly going through the motions like I had in my youth. They had deep and vibrant faiths. Even though I may have disagreed with them on some things, even significant things, they understood the practices of their tradition and the meaning behind them. Of course earnestness is no substitute for truth and there are some practices, even beautiful ones, done in the name of Christ, that I believe are rooted in error. But my point is that because of my own experience I had rejected all Christians who engaged in ritual observances and liturgical practices. I assumed their faith was as hollow and confused as my time in the church had been. But what I found was that they were intentional in their faith in ways I wasn’t and humbly connected to a greater witness that I had cut off. 

I found that I had much to learn, and still do. I found that my faith became more vibrant, rich, and deep when I gained insights beyond a very narrow, very recent, very American pool of Christian influences.

Many others are beginning to realize this and, as a result, there is a movement to reclaim/experience some of the elements of the historic traditions. A caution: I do believe that we must recognize the danger in simply cherry-picking practices and liturgical elements because they are sexy or marketable. Removed from their roots they often lose their meaning and power. They can become kitschy and superficial. But that would require another blog post to fully flesh out.

What I learned, and what I want to suggest in this post, is that there are ways we can learn from brothers and sisters – ancient and present – whose spiritual disciplines and expressions of worship are different than ours. And as we engage other traditions it is exceedingly important that we genuinely strive to understand the “why” behind their forms of worship. It is the “why”, not the form itself, that holds the power. Liturgical practices are not meant to give us romantic experiences, they are meant to connect us to Christ. 

That said, I think it would benefit us to look again at the season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and leads up to Easter Sunday.

Most people associate Lent with “giving something up”. Even when I was immersed in the Catholic Church when I was younger, that’s all I knew it as. The first date I ever went on with my wife fell on a Friday during Lent and I didn’t order meat at the restaurant. Why? I couldn’t tell you at the time. I just knew it was something you were supposed to do – or not do. 

But that is a perfect example of a practice that allows us to ask why. Why would the Church institute a practice of giving something up prior to the celebration of its most significant holiday? What is Lent all about and – forgive the harsh pragmatism – what is it meant to accomplish?

In short, it’s meant to prepare our hearts for Christ. It’s meant to focus our attention and heighten our affections. It’s meant to make us hungry so that we will taste and see that the Lord is good when we rejoice in the feast of Resurrection Sunday.

As with any church practices, there are theological nuances and underpinnings that we should not gloss over. We need to be discerning. But I would suggest that we don’t let them preemptively shut down our learning and the edification that comes from seeing how others draw close to the Lord. Even if our forms of worship are theologically incompatible, we may see some of our blind spots revealed.

Below I’ve quoted an author named Ronald Rolheiser, whose book God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, is both a beautiful publication and rich in content. The words below come from one of the introductions to the book describing the meaning of Lent. I’ve quoted it because I think it gives a wonderful picture of the “why” of this season. My hope is that the people of Redemption will engage Lent and Easter in fresh ways that stir their affections for Christ.

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An excerpt from God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter

Celebration is a paradoxical thing. It lives within the tension between anticipation and fulfillment, longing and consummation, the ordinary and the special, work and play.

Seasons of play are sweeter when they follow seasons of work, seasons of consummation are heightened by seasons of longing, and seasons of intimacy grow out of seasons of solitude.

Presence depends upon absence, intimacy upon solitude, play upon work. In liturgical terms, we fast before we feast.

In our time, we struggle with such paradoxes. Many of our feasts fall flat because there has not been a previous fast. In times past, there was generally a long fast leading up to a feast, and then a joyous celebration afterward.

Today, we have reversed that: there is a long celebration leading up to the feast and a fast afterward.

Take Christmas, for example. The season of Advent, in effect, kicks off the Christmas celebrations. The parties start, the decorations and lights go up, and the Christmas music begins to play. When Christmas finally arrives, we are already saturated and satiated with the delights of the season—we’re ready to move on. By Christmas Day, we are ready to go back to ordinary life. The Christmas season used to last until February. Now, realistically, it is over on December 25.

Celebration survives on contradiction. To feast, we must first fast. To come to real consummation, we must first live in longing. To taste specialness, we must first have a sense of what is ordinary.

When fasting, unfulfilled longing, and the ordinary rhythm of life are short-circuited, fatigue of the spirit, boredom, and disappointment invariably replace celebration and we are left with an empty feeling which asks: “Is that all?” But that is because we have short-circuited a process.

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To further our understanding [of Lent], perhaps the foremost image for this is the biblical idea of the desert. Jesus, we are told, in order to prepare for his public ministry, went voluntarily into the desert for forty days and forty nights, during which time he took no food, and, as the Gospel of Mark tells us, was put to the test by Satan, was with the wild animals, and was looked after by the angels … he deprived himself of all the normal supports that protected him from feeling, full-force, his vulnerability, dependence, and need to surrender in deeper trust to God the Father. And in doing this, we are told, he found himself hungry and consequently vulnerable to temptations from the devil; but also, by that same token, he was more open to the Father.

Lent has for the most part been understood as a time of us to imitate this, to metaphorically spend forty days in the desert like Jesus, unprotected by normal nourishment so as to have to face “Satan” and the “wild animals” and see whether the “angels” will indeed come and look after us when we reach that point where we can no longer look after ourselves.

For us, Satan and wild animals refer particularly to the chaos inside of us that normally we either deny or simply refuse to face: our paranoia, our anger, our jealousies, our distance from others, our fantasies, our grandiosity, our addictions, our unresolved hurts, our sexual complexity, our incapacity to really pray, our faith doubts, and our dark secrets.

The normal “food” that we eat (distractions, busyness, entertainment, ordinary life) works to shield us from the deeper chaos that lurks beneath the surface of our lives.

Lent invites us to stop eating, so to speak, whatever protects us from having to face the desert that is inside of us. It invites us to feel our smallness, to feel our vulnerability, to feel our fears, and to open ourselves to the chaos of the desert so that we can finally give the angels a chance to feed us.