A Word from Our Pastor 2018 February

February 4 begins the season of Lent.

Many Christians did not grow up commemorating this ancient and holy season – we may think of it mostly as a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox practice, starting with Mardi Gras, and continuing for 40 days or so with fasting, self-denial and prayer. One thing I really find meaningful is to think about the reason the church institutionalized this practice: what were they trying to teach us, and how might it still help us to experience God and our faith more fully?

Lent is one of the oldest observations of the Christian year. It started at the very beginning, when Christianity was growing through adult converts. (Christianity was so new that most people did not grow up in the church). Like many of the religions in the Roman Empire, there was a lot to learn. Some of the other religions of the time are called “mystery religions,” because converts had to be initiated into “secret” teachings, and then would participate in a ritual that would acknowledge the convert as a member. Christianity wasn’t so different in that there was a lot to learn – what Jesus taught about living with one another, about his own life, death and resurrection and what we believe about God (for example, the Trinity) and how we worship (pray, fast, sing, etc). The period of Lent was set aside for that instruction, and for self-examination by the new converts. Did they really want to be part of this religion; how would their thinking and their lives change because of what they are learning and what they are practicing? At the end of Lent, on Easter morning, those who completed the period of instruction would be baptized – that is our ritual of belonging, when we acknowledge God’s Holy Spirit is dwelling in the new convert, and like Jesus, our status as beloved children of God is celebrated.

Since that time, there have been different customs associated with Lent, and different Christian groups observe it in different ways, beginning on different days. However, most Christians included fasting: for about 40 days, only one meal was taken a day, near the evening: no meat, fish or animal products.

In the 600s, Gregory the Great began the observance of Ash Wednesday. As Christians came to the church for forgiveness, Gregory marked their foreheads with ashes reminding them of the biblical symbol of repentance (sackcloth and ashes) and mortality: “You are dust, and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19).

By the 800s, some Lenten practices were already becoming more relaxed. In 1966 the Roman Catholic Church declared only 2 fast days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. However, practices in Eastern Orthodox churches are still quite strict.
Twice per week, our founder, John Wesley, fasted from all food beginning after the evening meal through mid-afternoon the next day. He thought the practice an important form of penitence which allowed more time for prayer and believed it was more meaningful combined with giving to the poor. The United Methodist Church does not have official guidelines for the practice of fasting. Individuals are encouraged to make the best choice based on their personal situation.
At BMU on a couple of occasions, we have encouraged the young people to try fasting. It was quite difficult for some, as it would probably be for adults. But we thought it would be valuable to try: to make an effort to make a sacrifice as a way of strengthening our commitment to our faith. Not too long ago, Bishops of the UMC agreed to fast one lunch per week and donate what they might have spent on lunch to hunger-related charity. I suppose they could have said to themselves, “Approximately 6 lunches over 40 days, comes to about $80; I will donate that to a local charity.” However, I imagine that if this donation was accompanied by skipping the meal – fasting – it would make us think about those who are hungry. What it feels like to be hungry, and not immediately get something to eat; how blessed we are that eating or not eating is a choice; how Christianity is a faith based on receiving the gift that comes from Jesus’ sacrifice, and calls us to make sacrifices of our own.
Perhaps it would give a new perspective on yourself, on your faith, or on the meaning of sacrifice to try fasting. Start with something simple, maybe just omit one meal. Spend some time noticing how it makes you feel, and how you might do something for someone in need as another way of expressing your faith. Generations and generations of Christians have found this practice to be illuminating. . . I would love to hear about your experience. Have a blessed Lent! –Rev. Naomi