By Rebecca Barrack
In the quiet of the dawn, a new day emerges. But not just any day; it’s Ash Wednesday – which happens to fall on Valentine's Day this year. For some, that may not mean anything. For others, it signals the beginning of Lent.
Lent has changed greatly since its early days of observance. It’s one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar.
Millions of Christians today still observe the liturgical calendar – Advent to Ascension, and Pentecost to Ordinary Time – not as a mandate like the Israelites were ordered to observe in the Old Testament (Leviticus 23), but as a tool to mark the life and ministry of Jesus and the ministry of His Church.
The Lenten season leads up to the sentencing, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. It is the climax of the Christian calendar and worthy of observance.
It is traditionally a time to meditate on Scripture depicting the life and sacrifice of our Lord and Savior. A time for prayer and introspection, to repent and reflect on what God would have us understand about the crucifixion and our redemption. And, finally, a time to fast as a spiritual discipline to draw us closer to Christ.
Jesus calls us to observe times of fasting in secret, however. Not to exalt ourselves for the world to see (Luke 18:14b), as though our reward for practicing such discipline is found in man’s approval, or as a task to check off our list.
Matthew 6:16-18 - “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
* Underlined emphasis added
The word fasting can unnerve some and confuse others. Is it just an Old Testament discipline? Does it still serve a purpose today? What does it look like to fast?
Let’s go to Scripture. First, fasting was often used in the New Testament as a tool to prepare oneself for something. Here are a few examples:
- Fasting in preparation for the mission field – Acts 13:2-3
- After appointing elders in the church – Acts 14:23
- The combined power of prayer and fasting – Matthew 17:14–21
Jesus himself fasted 40 days and 40 nights while He was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:2).
When questioned why the disciples did not fast, Jesus explained, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come with the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and they will fast.” Matthew 9:15.
Let’s also recognize that in Scripture, prayer accompanies fasting. Lent is less about what you are “giving up” and more about what you are replacing that “sacrifice” with – prayer.
While we are called to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), our prayers are amplified when paired with fasting. Our self-denial turns our focus to a more intimate, uninterrupted communion with our Heavenly Father.
There are many types of fasts. It could be a food or even an ingredient (the ever popular sugar fast). You could fast from watching TV, surfing the internet, endless time spent on your phone, or any other activity that takes the place of time with God.
Whatever it is, it is between you and God, and the point of the fast is to turn to the Lord in prayer when tempted to return to that object of distraction. It magnifies our dependence on a great God and points to our need for redemption from the One who should be our number one object of affection.
Whether you call it observing Lent or simply a period of time devoting yourself to prayer and fasting, this season gives us a fresh focus on our undeniable sin and the hope and redemption we have in Jesus Christ alone.
May the Spirit fall fresh on us today.