Some of the great symbols of our faith have been sadly misused in history, but this doesn’t make them any less important.
My mother observed Lent and always wore all black to church on Good Friday. One time, shortly before we left the house, I asked her why.
“Today is kind of like remembering Jesus’ funeral. Of course, we know he’s alive and waiting for us in heaven, but first he had to die.”
As a child who’d already attended several family funerals, the connection of the dark clothes and those memories made a stark impression on me of the early disciples’ emotions and seriousness of Jesus’ sacrifice.
Importance of Symbols
C. S. Lewis discussed the nature of symbols in his scholarly work, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Mediaeval [sic] Tradition: “If our passions, being immaterial, can be copied by material inventions, then it is possible that our material world in its turn is the copy of an invisible world….
“The attempt to read that something else through its sensible imitations, to see the archtype [sic]in the copy, is what I mean by symbolism or sacramentalism.”
Symbols exist to reflect spiritual truths; they are not truth in or of themselves, but they point beyond this material world.
The markers of Christianity—the cross, a fish, church buildings, hymns, anointing oil, Lent, black clothes on Good Friday and lilies on Easter morning—have no real significance when they’re divorced from the holiness and presence of God.
However, as physical beings inclining ourselves towards the spiritual realm, symbols can be very helpful in comprehending these eternal truths we proclaim.
A Brief Background for Lent
One very interesting symbolic observance of Christ’s sacrifice is Lent.
Nowhere to be found in the Bible, the Lenten fast has nevertheless been observed by many Christians worldwide for centuries.
Although God never specify that believers must observe Lent, those who partake often point to the many spiritual leaders in the Bible who fasted as a model for their pre-Easter observance.
Moses fasted for 40 days when he communed with the Lord on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:28); Elijah fasted for 40 days on his journey to meet God at Horeb (1 Kings 19:8); and, of course, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert to prepare for his public ministry (Matt. 4:1–11).
In his excellent article on Christianity Today, Aaron Damiani points out, “The same council of pastor-theologians who developed the Nicene Creed also formalized the practice of Lent.”
These early church fathers felt that an official fast was important in remembering how truly dependent we are on God’s constant goodness and provision.
What Should I Give Up?
As children of the New Testament covenant, our fasting may not always look the same as everyone else’s or even like it has for ourselves in the past.
One of my Bible study leaders had medical reasons to not partake in a food fast. Her diet was already so limited thanks to allergies and other health issues that even fasting from a single type of food could have potentially landed her in the hospital.
Instead, she fasted from all social media outlets and spent that time instead focused on prayer. Her Lent became an incredibly encouragement to her spirit.
I, on the other hand, will eat just about anything and would’ve cheerfully taken the slightest excuse to forgo the daily barrage of Twitter posts or emails. Instead, when praying about what to give up for Lent, I felt deeply convicted about my “comfort foods.”
All I could think during the first week of Lent was that Easter Sunday was going to be a party indeed.
Now three weeks in, I’m finding I long less for the things I’ve given up. When the time comes, I’ll enjoy them without needing them anymore.
Making the Most of Easter
The greatest good that fasting can do for us is to turn our hearts toward God and give us a dedicated time to unburden ourselves before him.
In his article about Lent on Fox News, Gary Wilkerson explores how we can turn fasting, during Lent or any other time, into a space for healing and rejuvenation: “Eliminate all selfish wants. Resist all bitterness over what you don’t have. Ask God to help you clarify what your desires are and to replace bitterness with hopeful desire.
“Illuminate all good desires. Allow yourself to dream big! Identify clearly what you desire – and then tell it to God.
“Activate your desires. Don’t just sit on your desires; take action toward them. This may mean studying for them, disciplining yourself, starting something new or closing a chapter of life.”
Whether you choose to observe a formal Lent or prayerfully consider another form of fasting, may you come to Easter Sunday refreshed and renewed, more inclined than ever toward your Father’s call.