First Sunday of Lent | Jeff Nowers | March 10, 2019
Have you noticed that the days are getting longer? You’ll really be aware of it this evening now that we’ve switched over to Daylight Savings Time. This lengthening of daylight is what marks the season that we’ve just entered in the church’s calendar. “Lent” is a term that’s a carry-over from Old English; it’s meaning has to do with “lengthening”—the lengthening of days and light that occurs incrementally until we arrive finally at Easter when, in the words of the prophet Malachi, “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (4:2).
In the first three centuries of Christianity, Lent was not observed as it is today. At that time a preparatory period of fasting was undertaken in Holy Week, ending with Easter, the feast of the resurrection. It wasn’t until the Fourth Century that those few days of fasting became expanded to 40 days, mirroring the 40 days that Jesus spent resisting temptation in the wilderness. For those preparing for baptism in particular, this was a strict and solemn fast. Only one meal was allowed in the evening; meat, fish, and even eggs were forbidden. This austerity lasted for several centuries, but by the late Middle Ages it had begun to wane. Hard fasting was replaced by dietary restrictions, which most often took the form of abstaining from meat for 40 days.
As the observance of Lent continued to evolve into the modern period, people began to isolate certain food luxuries or pleasures as things to give up. That’s where things generally stand today. People attempt to abstain from things that they likely wouldn’t do at other times of the year. Chocolate is a popular example. Coffee. Alcohol. Sweets. But it’s not always related to food. Several years ago my wife gave up control of the TV remote—and that had interesting effects. Sometimes, instead of giving something up, people take something on—something that isn’t normally part of their routine. A few years ago Archbishop Colin Johnson, who at the time was just beginning to explore social media, decided to take up a Lenten practice of tweeting every day. I’m not sure what his Lenten discipline was the following year; maybe he decided to give up Twitter.
Why do people undertake these sorts of Lenten disciplines and practices? If you’ve given up or taken something on for Lent this year, why are you doing it? What’s the point of intentionally observing Lent? There certainly isn’t a single answer to the question. One purpose of observing Lent has to do with penitence—and this has deep historical precedent. Lent has historically been understood as a time to prepare for the celebration of Easter. But in that preparation, as the Prayer Book indicates, we need to remember our need for repentance, for mercy and forgiveness. So Lent becomes a time of self-examination in which we acknowledge the frailty and uncertainty of life. One way to do that is to abstain from certain pleasures that keep us comfortable and that allow us to forget that we are, as the liturgy of Ash Wednesday starkly reminds us, dust.
Another purpose of observing Lent has to do with training ourselves to live out a deeper, more authentic and all-absorbing expression of our Christian faith. That’s not easy to do. We need reminders and promptings to be serious about our desire to follow Jesus more intentionally. Does giving up chocolate help? Or not eating meat? Perhaps. If Lent is an exercise in Christian training, then abstaining from those things that we are attached to, that shape the contours of our daily living, should awaken us to the needs of those who do not enjoy such luxuries. When we feel the loss of what we’re so accustomed to doing, it’s an opportunity for us to reflect on our attachments and what may be obstructing us from loving God and our each and every neighbor more fully.
Let me emphasize a third purpose of observing Lent. Lent is an opportunity to become aware of harmful temptations that the normal patterns of our lives prevent us from discerning. When Jesus spent those 40 days alone in the wilderness fasting, he was tempted by the lure of power—power to obtain food to satisfy his immediate hunger, power to leave the desert and wield political authority, and power to manipulate religion and advance his own heroism. It took being in the desert, however, for Jesus to become aware of these temptations in the first place. And because he was able to name them and resist them in the desert, he was also able to carry out his public life with a resolve to withstand those same ongoing temptations of power that undermined who he was and the prophetic message he advanced.
For us today, Lent is a 40-day opportunity to pause and take stock of our lives, to name those temptations that perhaps we’ve never considered with any seriousness, to identify those things that we’ve been desensitized to, perhaps because we’ve already fallen victim to them. One example of an insidious temptation that daily afflicts all of us is single-use plastic. Cups and lids, straws, cutlery and utensils, packaging of produce and meat, bags of milk, shrink wrap—these have become a central part of people’s everyday lives. Single-use plastics back us into a corner and tempt us with the power of ease and quickness. The city of Toronto has beefed up its recycling program over the years, but far from all plastic put in the blue bin ends up recycled. The effects on our planet are taking a drastic toll.
Where does single-use plastic go after it’s used? It doesn’t disappear; it doesn’t biodegrade. Much of it ends up in water streams that ultimately feed oceans. In the midst of the Pacific Ocean, there’s a notorious “minestrone soup” patch of swirling pieces of plastic adding up to the size of Texas. The Mediterranean Sea is also filled with plastic. It gets into the fish we eat, the water we drink, and the salt we use. It’s in the beer we enjoy. Plastic attracts cancer, and it produces diabetes-causing chemicals. The more we consume single-use plastics, the more we’re turning our back on our own bodies and on the planet to which we belong.
I mention single-use plastic because it’s a universal problem impacting all of us, even if we don’t always think about it. But there are other big structural temptations: our mindless reliance on fossil fuels, our overuse of mobile communication devices. Lent is when we can take 40 days to name the temptations in our lives and to resolve to avoid them going forward.
When we consider the observance of Lent in this way, it is certainly a somber season of the church year. But remember that the days are lengthening. Light is increasing. That’s deeply symbolic, for when we resist harmful temptation, we’re resolving to let the light of Christ shine through us. Lent is when we reclaim the promises made at our baptism to love God, love our neighbor, strive for justice, and safeguard the integrity of creation. So may this Lent be for you a time of resistance and also a time of reclaiming the radically new life that Jesus calls us into.