Why Don’t More People Observe Lent?

By Pastor Goede

Lent can be a meaningful, holy time. But most of the things our culture associates with Lent are negative leftovers from a time when Lent was not only a church season, but also a time of state-enforced, legally required fasting. That “time” encompassed most of Western European church history; required fasting only ending for Roman Catholics around the world in 1966.

Thomas Aquinas described the rules regarding food that all Western Christians had to follow by the 1200s to perform penance for sin. On each of the forty days of Lent, people could not eat until 3pm, the hour of Jesus’ death. They could drink water, beer and wine (more sanitary beverages than water), and coffee and tea after these became available. When they did eat, they could not eat animal meat or fats, eggs or dairy products. What was left was bread and vegetables.

Ash Wednesday and Holy Week, the beginning and end of the season, were even more strict. People had to wait until sundown before they could eat one meal of bread, water, and herbs. The Good Friday fast began at sundown on Maundy Thursday, and lasted through the noon hour on Holy Saturday, when Easter Vigil began.

Priests taught that fasting gave ordinary people greater control over their own bodies, and so, over sin (Christians were also expected to refrain from sex during the season). But behind this severe, non-optional fasting was a system to beat it, indulgences. By around 900CE, German Catholics could receive permission to eat dairy products in exchange for good works, or a financial contribution to a pious work, like the building of a church. One of the steeples of Rouen Cathedral was known as the “Butter Tower” because it was built largely with the money raised from Lenten indulgences. If you had money, you could buy your way out of fasting; if you were poor, you worked while hungry.

Today, many restaurants in Chicago still offer a Friday Fish Fry in Lent, and many Catholics avoid other meats on Fridays. Many of my neighbors in the southwest suburbs talked about what they were giving up for Lent. But behind that modest vestige of fasting, I think that the legalism, and suffering, of enforced Lenten rules continues to haunt our attitudes even today. As soon as they could, Christians turned away from the cultural memory of a season of deprivation. Today, many around us don’t know what Lent means beyond McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish promotions; it all seems kind of silly.

A different vision of the season

Lent can be a time outside of time, space for us to renew and revel in our love for God. For Lutherans, Lent is still a penitential season, but it’s not a time of punishment. Rather, it’s a time for self-examination, a time to think seriously about sin and evil, righteousness, forgiveness and reconciliation. We make an effort to pray more regularly on our own, and we confess every week in our public, corporate Lenten worship.

Together, we wait to hear the words of forgiveness until Holy Week; in other words, we sit with our sin. We hear assurance that it’s coming, but we only seek absolution on Maundy Thursday. We use this time to reflect on the gift of reconciliation with God and others.

Many people fast these weeks, but not because it’s a rule. Many find that it’s useful to set aside a season in which to pare down, throw off, set aside for a moment. You can fast from food and drink, but you can also fast from entertainment, from shopping and buying, from all kinds of pursuits that distract and dull us, from habits that sometimes feel like they are eating us alive. Lent can be a time of quiet focus, which is not what life is usually like for many of us.

We say the season is “penitential” because we use the time to deal intentionally with sin. But Lutherans don’t believe that you can sacrifice money or good deeds in exchange for God’s forgiveness and acceptance. A desire to leave behind the old and lead a more faithful life, a commitment to follow Jesus more closely as a disciple, that kind of spiritual renewal is a good way to deal with the sin that can blight our lives. When our attitudes and commitments change, our lives change.

Many people use the season to intentionally spend more time thinking about others, turning outward rather than inward. Many people indeed do good works and give money to good causes, not in exchange for forgiveness but as an offering of themselves to God, with thanksgiving, in hope.

Lent can be a sacred space for renewal. Augustana offers several opportunities during Lent to deepen your faith and walk more closely with God. Take advantage – Lent is so much more than Filet-O-Fish on Fridays.