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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. Everyone recognizes Lent as a church tradition, but they frequently look to scripture to avoid taking time off to reflect on Jesus. Attempts are made to supplant the season with activities, to simply remember it in a haphazard manner, or, in exasperation, to 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 avoided distractions in order to focus solely on Jesus, the Bread of Life broken for us.One gains by losing. In other words, a jolt of righteousness!Too much focus on the individual [and less on the community] has progressively led to the loss of the practice of self-denial and quiet penitence before the Lord. How many evangelical churches do we know that are currently calling for church-wide prayer, fasting, and repentance in response to the current turmoil and suffering caused by bad policies? Community and accountability, it should be noted, have always been characteristics integral to the primitive church, where "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" is resolutely contested. [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, Catholic, or Charismatic about observances as long as one submits to the gracious Holy Spirit here to translate Jesus' redemption.

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 the Lenten season itself. Part of the reason is that many people have left the Orthodox Church [some were expelled as heretics for turning to Christ in unexpected ways] and are afraid that observance will be misinterpreted as a return to the old ways.Another factor is the influence of Protestant missionaries. Missionaries, in their zeal to evangelize [for which we are eternally grateful], failed to recognize 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 into 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 held early in the morning [as in the Orthodox Church] or that the worship style has taken a sharp turn [mostly American TV-evangelists] reflects a lack of coordination and imagination on the part of native leadership.Such developments have unnecessarily created symbolic distance within local Christian traditions. 

Lent in the traditional Ethiopian church runs for 55 days. What is little known is how the number of days was set. Historically, the 40-day period observed today in Western churches began in the 4th century in conjunction with preparing new believers for baptism. Prior to that, observances were limited to three days, according to church father Irenaeus [c.130-c.200].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 3 p.m. 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 an empty stomach, ran to church after school, and only then did we come home to break our fast. We also recall the solemnity of the season with 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 disorienting leadership. For those who can afford it, a more nutritious [vegetarian] diet is enjoyed in place of meat 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, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit." [Romans 14:17]

The Lenten season is not for the faint-hearted. For one, it is not easy to instantly forego habits that one has nurtured for more than ten months out of the year. Secondly, one embarks on the rigors of spirituality fully aware that this is a family and community affair and that no amount of complaining is going to help. Thirdly, subjecting the flesh to a season of discomfort, it is hoped, purifies the soul and accords justification before God for errant ways. Such are the struggles of the flesh that centuries of human experience have consistently failed to master.

Lent is also considered a time to give up something (anything) for God and oneself. No puffing on cigarettes, for instance, or strong drinks. Nothing is trivial here—texting is one thing, chocolate is another, or spending more time with real people and less time with cyber creatures. In fact, British Anglicans have now come up with creative ways communicants can "give up" little "sins" during the season. Likewise, Episcopalians are focusing more on social action than on meditation and repentance ["have mercy on me, a sinner" vs. "God has no hands but our hands"]. In short, anything but 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, nor 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 deepens the desire for excessive living. You gorge yourself now to work out later. Every element of restraint that pops its head is drowned by a half-dozen reasons for instant gratification.

The consequences of restraint, unlike instant gratification, are not short-lived; 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 food 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, there is no reason to put off desires. After all, life is short and the options are limitless, the argument goes; pleasures abound, yet there appears 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 something up"—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, and 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, being confronted by the futility of "giving up" on God and stopping 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 to 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, see 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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