Like most seasons of spiritual life and discipline, I've found two sides to the Lenten coin.
I've always been fascinated at the relatively wide-spread practice of giving something up during Lent, even (particularly?) among those who don't engage much with faith life during most of the year. I figure, it's one thing to celebrate Christmas even if you're not really a follower of Christ. There are universally held messages in the Christmas story and season that resonate and lead many to gratitude, gift giving, and love of neighbor. But...Lent? Our culture is far from celebratory of repentance, sacrifice, and abstinence.
Still, I think as a culture we value independence, or, more specifically, lack of dependence on things, foods, and people. We don't like to think of ourselves as addicted, hooked, needy. We don't like being told, or challenged: "I bet you can't live without ___." And so, masses of people give up chocolate, carbs, facebook, coffee, alcohol. This list goes on. We like to prove to ourselves that, gosh darnit, we can do it! We can live without those things! We're not really that hooked. We still have self discipline and control. Go us!
I too have had a mix of Lenten traditions. There were younger years when I gave up sweets- it never seemed to phase me much beyond some annoyance when I really wanted ice cream after dinner. (man, I love ice cream). One year I tried (semi-successfully) to give up lying. Like, no lying at all. Ever. One year I gave up all work on Sundays, committing to a real, true Sabbath. One year I fasted once a week, or for a few days with a group of close friends. Then there have been a few years that rather than giving something up, I tried to add something meaningful to my life- more time for prayer, a community dinner once a week, saying hello and looking in the eye everyone I passed on the street.
All of these experiences been valuable, and some more so than others. There is value in disconnecting from addictive habits, from committing to live more faithfully, to becoming more connected to my community. But I've often ended Lent wondering: "Did I do it right?" I mean, those aren't things I need to wait for Lent to do. In fact, I should probably be doing them regularly, like, all the time. It's always seemed uncomfortable to end Lent with the celebration of Resurrection, only to go back the next day to being a little more selfish, a little more addicted, a little less sacrificial. Shouldn't the result be the opposite? Isn't the season of Lent really about needing and finding a little more of Jesus than what we had before, holding on to Him for dear life, and emerging a little fuller, a little more faith-filled, a little more faithful.
Isn't Lent actually about Feasting?
The God I know doesn't want me to be empty, hungry, fasting. He wants me to be full, filled, stuffed, feasting. He's not thinking about chocolate or carbs. He's thinking about love and grace. He's not thinking about how long I can subsist on only water, or if I made it a whole week without swearing. He longs for obedience, trust, dependency. He's not a God who calls me to give things up simply to make the point that it's hard, or to acknowledge addiction. He calls me fill myself up with himself, and that generally requires some emptying of myself first. To make room to feel hungry for him, and then to be filled!
That emptying process, I think, is what we call repentance. Like a gardener weeds a garden before planting season, removing rocks and weeds and old dead brush, repentance lays bare the weeds and rocks of my heart and asks the great Gardener to remove them so new life can be planted.
So, is there fasting, giving up, emptying that Lent requires? Sure. Of me. I'm called to give up me. But that's not the end of the story. I'm equally called to hunger and thirst not for my old self (or chocolate, facebook, carbs, sin) but for Christ. For Christ in me.
Lent prepares me to arrive at Easter not starving and deprived, but so filled with need for and love of Christ that his Resurrection is absolutely the best news out there. To be filled with hunger is different than being hungry; it is to be filled with repentance and love and need for Jesus. It is to feast!