Church members differ in the way they observe lent. Some follow all the diet restrictions, some a few and some none at all. The prayers also follow the same route. But the question is who is the good lenter? The one who follows all diet restrictions and says all the prayers or the one who doesn’t see things as diet restrictions but as a way to share what is there with others and who is pleasant and happy while observing a lent?
This brings us to one of the important and yet often ignored aspects of lent. Jesus is clear when he says how fasting should be observed and how one should look while observing a fast. In Mathew 6:16-18 he says “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” It is not to show others but to show our God in private as to how we are conducting our lives. Our fasts and lents look forced upon us and mostly everyone looks like they have a heavy burden upon them which they are struggling to carry and finally do so because they are forced to.
This is why the Lenten season is not a pleasant experience in many of our households. It is a time when children remember that not only do they not get fish and meat during lunch and dinner, but their father and mother put on tantrums and let loose their tempers because they are being forced to fast and lent. Their face shows they are not happy and in the process they also don’t make others around them happy. There is also the habit of people which makes them think that if they have to fast and lent, then the entire family has to do it, whether they do it willingly or not. This makes revisiting lent every year a terrible experience because children and youngsters don’t have anything nice which they can associate with lent. It makes us a community which is very bitter with lent and with God who we think makes us undergo lent. This is reflected in how people look while they are observing a lent. It also appears to friends, colleagues and family that people who are on lent are moody and angry. So our lent appears to others as having the contrary effect to what lent is intended for.
This is why we must make add ons to substantiate the usual lent because our way of observing it makes others wonder why we observe lent in the first place! What could be some of the simple and yet essentials things we could do so that others will look forward to us observing the great lent every year?
1. Smile at those around you- a simple smile can put others at ease and suggest that we are in a good mood as well. Imagine how it would be if we maintain a grim face and say that we are on lent? Psalm 126:2 says “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” Smiling at those around us and looking confident is a way of showing others that the lent is doing great things for us and it is not weakening us but strengthening us from within.
2. Spend time with your family- one thing that comes out frequently in families is when the husband and wife who are also the father and the mother will tell each other and their child/children “Please try and understand. I have lots of work to finish.” Lent should be a time when we are with our family. We can cut down or cut out T.V., the internet, social media and work brought home and spend quality time with our family and even friends. Imagine how the children will feel if that happens. They will look forward to every lent because they know their parents will be finally available for them. They will glorify God for times like lent. We can cut out and slow down to ensure that we have more time for our family. At these times our diet will not be a concern because we will have people who matter around us and they will fill our stomach with their presence. 1 Timothy 5:8 says “And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Observing lent does not mean cutting away from family and friends but rather making time for them in an otherwise stressful life.
3. Forgive others and seek forgiveness- Matthew 5:23 and 24 says “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Having something against someone is like having a mill stone around our neck. We won’t be able to pray when we are thinking about someone who we term as an enemy. It also becomes an additional baggage to carry and we won’t be able to observe lent when this additional baggage is there. Reconciliation is a must and without this lent is of no use. Lent without reconciliation is a way of lying to ourselves that all is well when nothing actually is. Lent minus reconciliation will be a way of justifying not reconciling with someone. It is because the lent will be seen as purifying the person who is observing the lent and demonizing the person with whom reconciliation is not sought. This is a wrong way to observe lent as it justifies our position and takes away the sheen of lent. We must ask forgiveness if we have done something against someone and we must be ready to forgive someone who we feel has done something against us.
4. Concentrate on your lent instead of preaching to others about their lent- there is a tendency in households to advise others about lent and how it should be done. All the while the person preaching is not trying to observe a meaningful lent by himself/herself. This suggests a very sadistic approach from our part. Fasting and lent should never be imposed on someone. It should come from within and we can inspire people to lent but not force them to! Many a time we are bothered about what others are doing instead of concentrating on our own lent. Lent should not be seen as making us holier than others and thereby seating ourselves on a pedestal. Rather lent should be seen as a time when we work on our faults and short comings. We must at all times during lent prevent ourselves from judging others as that will lead to a meaningless exercise of fasting and lent. Instead we should at all times concentrate on our short comings. In many houses the elderly and parents get into arguments with children and youngsters saying that the entire house will be on lent and the head of the house has decided that. What would be more appropriate is to show others the change in us by observing lent. Isaiah 58:3-7 says “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
5. Improve on the Lenten experience- there should be a meaningful reason for everyone to be part of lent. For some eating vegetarian food is not a struggle. For others not eating at all is no big deal as they don’t eat when they work anyway. In such cases there should be more acts of lent which should be practiced. These include abstaining from social media, cutting down smart phone usage, not watching television, doing a carbon fast (which means not using vehicles which emit carbon and thereby contributing to a clean environment), carbohydrate fast, keeping silent and meditating on our life and those around us, calling up friends and family we never usually speak to and keeping in touch with people, asking friends and family whether they need any help in paying bills, getting a government job done for an elderly couple, help with tuition, asking for prayer requests that one can pray over and cutting down on anything that we perceive as harming us. Drinking too much will only weaken us and doing drugs will only confuse us. When we want to strengthen the lent experience we should also stop things which weaken our body and which will ultimately prevent us from doing good. In Matthew 4 Jesus fasts 40 days and he is tempted by the devil. The devil does not talk about small things but about power. The devil tests the standing and power of Jesus by asking him to turn the stones to bread, asks Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple so that the angels can come and save him and finally the devil takes Jesus to the top of a mountain and tells him that if Jesus worships the devil, he will give him all the kingdoms of the world.
So when we lent, if people come and entice us with the promise of power and authority, it means that we are observing lent well. If on the other hand we are always judging and preaching to people about how they should observe lent, something is wrong somewhere. Jesus maintains his cool and composure even after 40 days of fasting. All he says is “Away with you Satan”. He does not talk about his own fasting and does not enter into an argument. He knows that several people are counting on him and so he disassociates himself from power and authority which is on offer to him. This should be the power of lent. To say no and to say it strongly. To know that many people depend on us reforming ourselves. And to lent with joy and happiness never for a moment thinking it is a burden but using that as a way of letting go of all burdens.