I frequently listen to the Preston and Steve show when I drive into work in the morning. (That almost feels like a confession.) It’s a local morning show, filled with all the stereotypical sound effects, running jokes, and enthusiastic callers. I’ll admit I’ve numbered among those enthusiastic callers once or twice.
As such, this is not a show that attempts to have intellectual conversations about deep topics. To my surprise, Lent came up as I was listening recently. The discussion started with Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and how amazing a party the day is, a subject which was not surprising, but quickly moved to Lent and what individual members of the show were giving up for the season. There was even someone who wasn’t religious at all that decided to give up sugar for Lent.
As the dialogue bounced back and forth, I was struck with how arbitrary Lent sounded in that context. One person, who seemed to sense the impression the conversation was giving, mentioned how you feel good when you successfully give up something for those 40 days, as if that was reason enough to do it. The conversation continued for several minutes, but when it finished, no one seemed any more aware than they were at the beginning why someone would voluntarily give something up.
I am not the first person to observe how arbitrary the sacrifices of Lent occasionally seem. People make choices about what’s important to them and give it up based on guidelines they set themselves. Life is full of sacrifices, why would we invent more of them?
Normally we think of sacrifice in the context of a giving up something now for a reward in the future. When many people give up something for Lent, they often give up things around junk food, knowing that it will lead to better health. People sacrifice social media knowing it will lead to a more peaceful mental state. This perspective is a misunderstanding of the purpose of Lent. While things like improved health, and peace of mind, can be side effects of Lenten sacrifices, those should not be the primary motivators. We don’t sacrifice for a sense of accomplishment. We also don’t sacrifice to earn something. Fasting isn’t some pagan ritual to gain the favor of the gods. The question remains. Why?
The church has no shortage of reasons for why we fast. We use hunger as a reminder to pray. We use money we would have spent on food to give to the poor in almsgiving. We train ourselves not to be too dependent on the things of this world. In the Orthodox Church, of which I’m a member, we don’t choose what things to give up, but instead the church provides strict rules of fasting, and holds church services multiple times a week. Ultimately, all these things are preparation for Pascha, the word we use for Easter, in which we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, and after the service have a massive feast, where we eat all the foods we gave up during Lent. Considering we don’t eat meat or dairy for all of Lent, and only have wine and oil on weekends, people bring a lot of food.
The idea that we have to prepare ourselves for a feast actually sounds a little odd. Sure, people will eat very little the day before they go to a restaurant they really like, or they may comment how hunger is the best seasoning, but is 40 days of fasting really just so we can enjoy food more at the Paschal feast? No… and yes. Lent is not just about one meal, but it is about appreciating another feast, a greater feast, one that we wait for, but also one that is already here.
We can rarely fully appreciate something until we’re deprived of it. That’s a truth of human nature as old as Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. Clichés abound about how could we have the joy of spring without winter, how you don’t know you love someone until you let them go, how darkness makes light shine brighter. Loss, suffering, and darkness can all be vehicles to joy. The great problem of the fallen world is that instead of merely accepting and using these things, we become infatuated with them.
It is amazing how many excuses we human beings find not to be happy. We trade the happiness of marriages for the drama of affairs. We give up the joy of friendship for the pride of being right. We abandon the humor of our mistakes for the pacification of self pity. In an existence that is already filled with struggles, we create more of them, to our own detriment. God has given us many blessings. In Lent we give them up, but we do this so eventually, one day, we can actually accept them.
This acceptance of the good things of this life is a part of Christianity that is often forgotten. We believe of greater things to come, absolutely. But while the kingdom is yet to come, the kingdom is also already here. While we need to learn to sacrifice for the kingdom to come, we also need to learn to rejoice in the kingdom among us. We need to learn to give without self-righteousness, love without lust or jealousy, and feast without gluttony.
I sometimes wonder if we could be fully present in even the simplest of meals, if we could smell every aroma, taste every nuance, and completely enjoy every bite, we’d think we were in heaven already. We live in a world filled with miracles, and only in the rarest of times are we astounded by how miraculous it is. Our world is deluged with pain and sorrow, and yet brimming with good too. While Lent commemorates the suffering of this world, it is only so we’re ready to receive joy. If you’re going to hear the good news, the Gospel that we remember every Pascha, you have to be trained to listen for it.
I think Lent is supposed to emphasize that sacrifice is not the ultimate goal of the human race. While we can see beauty in suffering, we always must keep in mind that suffering is a temporary state. One day, good will not have to be accompanied by the lack of it in order to appreciate its presence. Lent is a time to take deprivation, isolate it, and recognize that it is a tool to prepare us for plenty. Let us sacrifice that we may learn how to celebrate. Let us fast, so we may one day truly keep the feast.