The season of Lent approaches with all of its suggestions for spiritual renewal. The word cloud above this post illustrates Lent’s multiple messages. The season has become like a spiritual smorgasbord. We pick and choose because we can’t do everything that’s recommended. So maybe at most we will try to attend church more regularly, even some midweek services, give up meat or some other food on Fridays, collect alms in a coin bank, and thereby make an effort at observing the notable duties of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in Matthew 6 that we hear proclaimed on Ash Wednesday. If we derive some benefit from this, well and good.  Even this amount of “good works” puts us in a counter cultural stance and therefore demonstrates some repentance or turning around in our direction of life, at least for forty days.

I’m not knocking this, but I want to alert us to the basic problem with our modern observance of Lent: a lack of focus for our practices. First let’s go back to the origins of the season, which are also complex.

The idea of a Christian observance of a forty-day preparation for the pascha or passover of Christ from death to life, coinciding with the preparation of catechumens for their Baptism at the paschal vigil, became nearly universal only after the Council of Nicea. This season, otherwise known as Quadragesima or Tessarakoste (forty days) was  created by bringing together several pre-Nicene practices in different churches.

The emergence of an annual paschal celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ already in the second century was accompanied by two days of fasting. This was eventually extended to a whole week—the six days between Palm Sunday and Easter.  Hence, the origin of Holy Week even before the fourth century.

It became a nearly universal practice to to have a three-week period of preparation of catechumens for their baptism, which did not always climax at Pascha (Easter). This was also observed in Rome and is reflected in the three Masses for the scrutinies in the later Roman-Gallican Gelasian Sacramentary on the Sundays of Lent III, IV, and V.

If this  three week catechumenal period with its fasting occurred before Pascha (Easter), it was in addition to the fasting during Holy Week. Some Eastern traditions have continued to maintain a distinction between the fasting of Lent and the fasting of Holy Week.

The Egyptian Church centered in Alexandria observed a forty day fast after the Epiphany following the chronology of its favorite Gospel of Mark in which after Jesus’ baptism he was led into the wilderness for forty days of fasting and was there tempted by the devil. Eventually the preparation of candidates for baptism occurred during this forty day post-Epiphany fast, but baptisms were not on Easter. They were often celebrated on what became Lazarus Saturday. The Coptic and Ethiopian Churches, in resisting Byzantine imperialism, to this day do not allow baptisms between Palm Sunday and Pentecost.

However, the Alexandrian Church had pioneered this forty day fast in imitation of Jesus’ fast and used it as the time of preparation of catechumens for baptism. It was adopted by other Churches and was changed from a post-Epiphany to a pre-Paschal fast, including in the Roman Church.

In addition, in the Roman Church this forty day fast (which included Saturdays—the West Syrian-Byzantine Churches did not; hence they have a longer Lent) correlated the preparation of the public penitents for reconciliation on the morning of Maundy Thursday (so that they could participate in the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper) with the preparation of the catechumens for their baptism at the Paschal Vigil. Thus, between the fourth and sixth centuries Lent acquired its catechumenal and penitential character.

After the sixth century the orders of catechumens and penitents waned with the increase in infant baptisms and private penance.  Lacking public catechumens and public penitents as the focus of church life during Lent, all the faithful returned, in effect, to the catechumenate and embraced penitential disciplines, receiving the ashes of the penitent on Ash Wednesday. During the Middle Ages, and especially in the Reformation and Post-Reformation periods, the focus of Holy Week on the passion of Christ was pushed back into Lent and basically became the emphasis in Lenten devotions and preaching. The practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (our works of penitence) remained, although the focus on Baptism and penance didn’t.

With the retrieval of the adult catechumenate and the rites of Christian initiation of adults (RCIA), the catechumens placed at the center of church life and liturgy could once again give Lent a concrete focus as the whole congregation of the faithful accompanies them to their baptism and to the renewal of our own baptism at the Easter Vigil.  Our hymnals, unfortunately, have very few hymns, at least in the “Lent” sections, that relate to the catechumenate or the renewal of baptism. The cross and passion of Christ still dominate the hymn selections for Lent.

From the early days of church the faithful accompanied the candidates by fasting along with them (already in Didache  7:4 at the end of the first century).  So the main focus of Lent is Baptism. The main practice of Lent is fasting. And this means fasting for the whole season, not just on Fridays, with a let up on Sundays.

But here we have another problem. The ancient church fathers and the Eastern churches to this day recommend and prescribe much fasting.  But the great scholarly work of Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988; revised edition 2008) exposes our modern problem with fasting. Simply put: our modern Western bodies are not the same as the bodies of earlier times and other places.   Drawing on the work of the French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality, Brown reminds us of the sharp discontinuities between our overly-fed modern Western bodies and the under-fed bodies of ordinary human beings in antiquity (as well as in some parts of the world today).  In plain fact, some bodies are capable of thriving on less than we are, and often have to.

In part a cosmology or worldview is involved that eludes us today. This is seen in the practices of the desert fathers and other ascetics in the ancient world.  Let me quote from Peter Brown at length:

“There is no doubt as to the terrible privations that were involved even in the relatively stable life of the Pachomian monasteries. But we must remember that the body-image which the ascetics brought with them into the desert gave considerable cognitive and emotional support to their hope for change through self-mortification. It takes some effort of the modern imagination to recapture this aspect of the ascetic life. The ascetics of late antiquity tended to view the human body as an ‘autarkic’ system. In ideal conditions, it was thought capable of running on its own ‘heat’; it would need only enough nourishment to keep that heat alive.  In its ‘natural’ state—a state with which the ascetics tended to identify with Adam and Eve—the body had acted like a finely tuned engine, capable of ‘idling’ indefinitely, It was only the twisted will of fallen men that had crammed the body with unnecessary food, thereby generating in it the dire surplus of energy that showed itself in physical appetite, in anger, and in the sexual urge. In reducing the intake to which he had become accustomed, the ascetic slowly remade his body. He tuned it into an exactly calibrated instrument. It’s drastic physical changes, after years of ascetic discipline, registered with satisfying precision the essential, preliminary stages of the long return of the human person, body and soul together, to an original, natural and uncorrupted state” (p. 223).

The ascetic, of course, engaged in permanent fasting. The ordinary Christian had Wednesdays and Fridays and the Great Fast of Lent to keep the body tuned. But our ancient ancestors in the faith were starting from a better state than we are in recalibrating our bodies to “an original, natural…state,” one that the ancients thought would also foreshadow their resurrection bodies.  Considering where we modern Westerners are starting from, a half-hearted fast on a few Lenten Fridays is not going to get us anywhere near this original or future state.  But the fact is that our churches could do more to help us in recovering the physicality as well as the spirituality of fasting, including in what is served in Lenten suppers.

I have come up with a half-measure fasting for myself. Fasting is the spiritual discipline of subjugating the flesh by depriving it of flesh—meat. One could include all meat products in this fast, but I start just with the flesh. No meat on Fridays. If possible, make Wednesdays also (the other historic Christian fast day) also a meatless day. Then add no meat for breakfast and lunch: no bacon or sausage, no lunch meat. This is doable.

Fasting is not for the sake of dieting, detoxifying, or supporting world hunger. Those are good and noble purposes, but they can be done at any time. Nor is the Lenten fast is just about self-denial. It is a penitential discipline of mortifying the flesh to prepare our bodies, ourselves, for regeneration and resurrection.

Pastor Frank Senn