It must be the Lenten season, right? Turn on the television or the radio. McDonalds promotes its filet-o-fish sandwich. The campy wall bass now calls out via cell phone to those seeking a “meatless” repast. The local news reports on people heartedly devoted to completing the Northeast Ohio fish fry circuit, after all you only have forty days to partake in all that battered, fried goodness. So many parishes to hit. So little time.
People suddenly are giving up the things they love. Some deny themselves sugar, others “smokes.” Denying oneself pleasure is the object of the season. Then there are those who cease to consume meat. One will abstain from all meat including fish for 40 days while another will substitute red meat with fish on Fridays only. People seem to pick and chose what they do. Are there rules?
I’ve asked people why they abstain from meat, substitute fish on Fridays or why they give up anything during the season of Lent. Most people answer that don’t know why they do it. It’s just what one does during this time of year if you’re Catholic. Many evangelicals say that they just like the idea of giving up something for the Lord. My favorite reason for abstinence comes from those who have no religious motivation. They just want to fit in with their Catholic and well-meaning Protestant friends. It’s fun to fit in.
I grew up in the Lutheran Church. I had little exposure to this concept of giving up something for Lent. Lutherans observed the Lenten season and were encouraged to solemnly consider Christ’s sacrifice and our relationship with our Savior, but did not practice fasting (honestly, I never met a Lutheran who would willingly give up a meal). It wasn’t until I attended the public high school that I came into contact with this idea of seasonal abstinence. (How fitting that this season was the forerunner of bikini season).
At first, I was rather perplexed by the Lenten practices. Quickly, I warmed up to the idea that I could do something for God to show Him just how great I was and how much I loved Him. I had always been drawn to the idea that somehow I could validate my devotion to the Lord through some act of my will. What better way to prove your love than to impose self “suffering.” I found this ritual completely delightful. The bonus was that as a teenage girl, I could refuse to eat and it would be considered godly and not psychologically unhealthy. Godly devotion trumps parental concern. I win and get to serve God. What could be better?
That was the perpective of a teenager who struggled with a border line eating disorder, but is it much different from how Lent observers reason today? Seriously, how does giving up something benefit God? What can man do for the Lord that God lacks?
It seems that people who observe Lent through self denial are well intentioned. They desire to worship the Lord and to honor Him. Many seem very sincere in their abstention, sincerely mistaken. The Lord himself points out the folly of misguided human tradition.
Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote. Isaiah 29:13
Jesus rebukes the religious people of his day in Mark 7: 7-8.
“Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God. For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.”
No where in scripture does Christ command that his followers participate in a 40 day fast of remembrance commemorating his death and resurrection. The only rituals which Christ instituted are communion and baptism.
Now people have told me that fasting is a way to draw near to God. They say that spiritual disciplines are a means to see more clearly the way and will of the Lord,“For man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Perhaps they are onto something. Didn’t Jesus fast for 40 days and nights in the desert prior to entering his adult years of ministry? Didn’t Jesus, who happened to be God, do battle with Satan in the wilderness, weilding the word of God as his only weapon? Perhaps this is the goal of eating fish on Fridays?
Yes, clearly I am Lent picking. My main beef (he-he) with Lent is not that people want to be near to God or even that they have a need to reflect on what Christ accomplished on the cross. Those are good things to consider. What vexes me is that people, through human rituals and observance, are trying to be righteous before God through their own efforts. This is just plain madness. Paul raved about this foolish tendency in Galatians 3.
1You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
Christianity is all about freedom. Freedom from sin. Freedom from “works” and the law. Freedom from slavery. Freedom from death. Galatians 5:1 reads:
1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
So, let’s not deceive ourselves during this traditional season of penitence. We are not bound by rules or regulations, nor do we need to observe special seasons and festivals. Each day we live in Christ is a victorious feast of community in relationship. The rules have been abolished. There is no need for filet-o-fish advertisement campaigns. No longer a need to fill McDonald’s coffers with slave money. We are free to eat meat – free to dig into a Salisbury steak dinner on Friday.
I say free the fish!