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Lent a Way of Life

  Lent a Way of Life

By  Mitiku Adisu
Not all Christian groups know what to do with the 40 days leading up to Easter. All recognize Lent as church tradition but would often search scripture to get around taking time off to meditate on Jesus.* Attempt is made to supplant the season with activities or to simply remember it in a haphazard manner or, in exasperation, dump the tradition at the door of liturgical churches. Lent, it is understood in some quarters, does not suit the lifestyle of the urban dweller.

However we wish to observe Lent, what matters most is in the end not activities per se but Jesus; not evasion or presumed observances but consecrating oneself and the season to Christ and his Holy Spirit. One abstained from distractions to feast solely on Jesus the Bread of Life broken for us. One gained by losing. Western churches may feel drawn to feasts [Christmas] than to fasts [Lent]; likewise, one could make the case that Eastern churches often (ab)use self-denial to twist the arm of God to obtain, so to speak, a jolt of righteousness!

Too much focus on the individual [and less on community] has progressively led to loss of the practice of self-denial and quiet penitence before the Lord. How many evangelical churches do we know are today calling for a church-wide prayer, fasting and repentance concerning the present turmoil and the suffering of multitudes caused by wrong policies? Community and accountability, it should be noted, have always been a characteristic integral to the primitive church where “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” is resolutely contended for. [Jude 1:3]

There are, of course, exceptions even within the evangelical community. The late Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade, for instance, had discovered the importance of the disciplines of fasting and prayer. There is nothing liturgical or Catholic or Charismatic about observances so long as one is submitted to the gracious Holy Spirit here to translate the redemption brought us by Jesus.

We think it is fair to state that Ethiopian evangelicals have integrated or retained elements of fasting and prayer into the life of the church. However, there seems to be a lingering uneasiness about Lent season itself. Part of the reason is that many have come out of the Orthodox Church [some thrown out as heretics because of turning to Christ in unexpected ways] and hence, fear observance could be mistaken for a return to the old ways. Another factor is the influence of Protestant missionaries. In their zeal to evangelize [for which we are ever thankful] missionaries to some degree failed to comprehend that the Holy Spirit not only renewed but also reclaimed the old. The clay jar is filled with new wine to overflowing; equally, it may not be wise or useful to break to pieces or push aside the clay jar on the assumption that a new container is modern and, therefore, better. The fact that Sunday church services are not early in the morning [as in the Orthodox Church] or that worship style has taken a sharp turn [mostly American TV-evangelists] is reflective of weak native leadership that lacked coordination and imagination. Such developments have unnecessarily created symbolic distance within local Christian traditions. 

Lent in traditional Ethiopian church runs 55 days. What is little known is how the number of days was set. Historically, the 40-day observed today in Western churches began in the 4th century in conjunction with preparing new believers for Baptism. Prior to that, according to church Father Irenaeus [c.130-c.200] observances did not exceed three days. In regard to dietary rules, one was required to abstain from meat, fish, and animal products and to eat only one meal at the end of the day. The rules were eventually relaxed; fish was included in the diet. In the 9th century, meals began to be taken after 3pm, and at noon beginning in the 15th century.

Clearly, the Ethiopian practice is severe. Many of us recall how by age 12 we went to school on empty stomach and run to church after school and only then did we come home to break fast. We also recall the solemnity of the season by the soothing and meditative bagana masinqo songs on national radio. Things have changed quite a bit in recent years and not necessarily for the better. In the first half of the past 40 years a level of seriousness in matters of faith was very evident among ordinary Ethiopians as they collectively faced challenges to their religious, economic, and human freedoms. In the second half, however, the air of solemnity appeared to have been sucked out of the season by a spirit of consumerism, “democracy,” and a dis-orienting leadership. For those who could afford, a more nutritious [vegetarian] diet is enjoyed in place of meats and dairy products. Observance of the season has become a goal in and of itself, forcing Jesus to stand outside the gates. “The kingdom of God,” writes the Apostle Paul, “is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” [Romans 14:17]

Lent season is not for the faint-hearted. For one, it is not easy to instantaneously forego habits that one nursed for more than ten months out of the year. Secondly, one embarked on the rigors of spirituality fully aware this is a family/community affair and that no amount of complaining is going to help. Thirdly, subjecting the flesh to a season of discomfort, it is hoped, purified the soul and accorded justification before God for errant ways. Such are the struggles of the flesh that centuries of human experience consistently failed to master.

Lent also is taken for a season to give up something [anything] for God and for oneself. No puffing on cigarettes, for instance, or strong drinks. Nothing is trivial here. A chocolate habit for one, text messaging for another. Or socializing more with real people and less with cyber creatures. In fact, British Anglicans have now come up with creative ways communicants could “give up” little “sins” during the season. Episcopalians, likewise, are focusing more on social action than on meditation and repentance [“have mercy on me, a sinner” v. “God has no hands but our hands"]. In short, anything but to sit still [Psalm 46:10]. But “to everything there is a season.”

The divine injunction “Be still and know that I am God” is pushed aside because it does not compute with our desire to earn our way into the Kingdom of God. To be still is not necessarily to be inactive or is it to waste time. To be still is to know God, to let go and to let God. Everything else must remain secondary to knowing God.

Self-control is a rarity in this day and age the mention of which could generate a yawn—and a big one at that. Modernity has discovered self-control to be significant only as long as it deepened the desire for excessive living. You gorge yourself now to work out later. Every element of restraint that pops its head is drowned by half a dozen reasons for instant gratification.

The consequences of restraint, unlike instant gratification, are not short-lived, however; if diligently practiced they could sustain one through hard times. Lent is, therefore, a radical concept that needs to be reconsidered by all who want to possess an abiding and ennobling perspective on life. Alas, the disciplines of fasting, prayer, and scripture reading are lost treasures that are being replaced by activities that supposedly make everyone feel good without adding an iota to character-building.

Abstaining from foods is easy to adapt to in communities where hunger is a daily reality. Dieting is not necessarily similar to hunger; rather, dieting is often the result of not practicing self-control to begin with, and of giving in too readily to latent and induced passions. In hunger one does not have the choices one has when going on a diet. In a consumer society one finds no reason to defer wants. After all, life is short and choices are limitless, goes the argument; pleasures are everywhere waiting to be tapped into and yet there seems to be little time to enjoy them all. In fact, it is not uncommon to observe the creative among us turning abstinence into a form of immoderation.

In almost all cases the focus of the season has turned to 'giving up something’; giving up what one could or what one chose. And there are those of us uncomfortable with being told what to give up because “we are not in the Middle Ages any more.” In the end, it is what I give up, what I do, what I choose.

Suppose we meditated more on what God gave up by sending Jesus to the Cross and what it cost Jesus to purchase our redemption!

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich… For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit… [2nd Corinthians 8:9; 1st Peter 3:18]

Only then could we possibly stop trivializing the reality of total sacrifice and fall on our faces to seek God’s forgiveness and His enabling power [grace] because we have now recognized our shortcomings [sin]. In other words, to be confronted by the futility of ‘giving up’ for God and stop playing games will finally drive us back to His mercy!

We should welcome all excuses to meditate on our Lord and the beneficence He has made available through his death and resurrection. That is why we should pray the Lord to extend our Lent into a year-round event and not just a 55-day discipline followed by a day of feasting before gently sliding back into our old ways!

* For example, Galatians 4: 10-11: “How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world… you observe days and months and seasons and years!”
First published on March 24, 2009; edited and reprinted here.
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