By the grace of God, we are once again entering into the 50 days lent popularly known as ‘Great Lent’ -the biggest of the 5 canonical Lents of the holy Church- which leads us to commemorate the climax episode of Christ’s incarnation and to be the contemporary of those events happened in the past. “Lent is not a collection of prohibitions but it is an option for what is positive”. Fasting is one of the traditions Christians have inherited from Judaism. It was common enough at the time of Jesus for him to warn us: “When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward” (Matt 6:16).
There are many ways to keep a good Lent. During Lent time, a faithful believer of Christ is supposed to abstain from some particular food or pleasure, especially avoiding non-vegetarian and sex. This is what exactly St. Paul meant when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:5 “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self control”. Of course, the first thing God wanted from human was to abstain from a certain food (Genesis 2:16-17). Lent involves an element of sacrifice as the observant forsakes something that he/she likes most. It is the best remedy to get rid of the lust in oneself which deviates one from the divinity. Lent is, further, an opportunity for oneself to abstain from bad habits like smoking, drinking, etc.
Some people doubt whether diet regimen during Lent in our church is biblical or not. Abstaining from the king’s rich food, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah ate vegetables (lentels) and drank water. (Daniel 1:8-12). See what Daniel says, “ In those days, I Daniel, was mourning for three weeks, I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks”.(Daniel 10:2-3). It is said in Joel 1:14; 2:12 that we have to lament and mourn for sanctifying fast. The fasting period is called the lamenting period. Daniel did not eat any delicacies, meat or wine during fasting period. According to one’s strength, power and call everyone adjusts the dietary arrangements and the duration of the fasting. We see that St. John the Baptist, the greatest of all born of women abstained from eating fish or meat. The children like Hananiah and the rest ate only lentels, and drank water. Daniel rejected the delicacies and wine. The Church takes note that the Hebrew youths were blessed by God through holy fasting. It was fasting that delivered the children from the furnace and Daniel the prophet from the jaws of the lions.
Simple food in small quantity helps creating in oneself awareness that gluttony is a sin. A scoop of simple food would help one to inculcate an idea that our prayers should be need based and not greed based. Through lent one gets to know of the depths of pain of starving people. Lent inspires one to identify oneself with the poor and to the necessity of being austere throughout one’s life. One who observes lent in all sincerity and seriousness comes to the understanding that it is a sin of being rich in a poor world.
The Church’s commandment is that one should not eat anything until evening or 3 p.m. If one is not capable of doing it, fast till mid-day. If possible, one should avoid tasty and rich food like egg, milk, fish, meat, oil, wine, etc. And purify himself/her self through prayer, meditation on Bible and prostration. One is bound by moral obligations, such as giving alms and helping the needy etc, during fasting period. It is compulsory that one should participate in the Holy Communion after the true confession.
As our lives become ever busier, there is the danger that the voice of the Lord gets drowned out. Even in Jesus’ own time, it was easy to become distracted by the cares and duties of everyday life as the episode of Martha and Mary shows. As an antidote, Jesus invites us to “come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). In the early centuries of the Church, men and women accepted this invitation quite literally and withdrew to a solitary life in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. From this began the Christian monastic tradition. While not all of us feel a call to become monks or hermits, there are many disciplines and practices we can all undertake to help us live this season of renewal to the full.
Lent means living exclusively with God. It means making a space for God in our life. Spend time reflecting on your own baptism. Read John 4:5-42, John 9:1-41 and John 11:1-45. Ask God to renew the gifts you have already received. Do something extra, like visiting the sick. Lent is a time of not only prayer, but also for fasting and alms deeds, which Augustine called “the wings of prayer” meaning, presumably, that without the fasting and alms deeds, our prayer remains earthbound and ineffective. It is good to have a charity box for each one of us. Earmark the money thus collected by fasting for philanthropic activities. See what kind of fasting God wants from us all. “Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives” (Isaiah 58: 6-7). This is not enough to fulfill a Lent. What is necessary is to have ‘repentance’.
When Jesus began his public life and preaching, his first message was not “Love one another” or even “Love your enemies”, it was “The kingdom of God is close at hand, Repent”( St. Mark 1:15). The English word ‘Penance’ is the translation of a Greek word ‘metanoia’. The root of penance is the Latin word ‘Peona’, meaning punishment, penalty, pain, grief. It is not surprising that Lent, time for penance, is not our favourite time of the year. Metanoia, however, does not mean punishment or pain: literally, it means a change of mind. So Lent is not meant to be a time for punishment and pain, but a time for changing our minds, changing our outlook and attitudes, a time for changing our hearts. This is vividly illustrated when Prophet Joel tells Israel, “Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn” (Joel 2:13).
Finally, apart from abstention of food and worldly pleasures, it is good to have ‘Mauna Vretham’ (Keeping silence all through the days of the Lent). Silence is not simply the absence of word or sound, but our profound sense of the presence of God that transcends all human logic, language and concept. It is in silence that we hear the transforming soft voice of God which is talking to us from the centre of our being. Silence helps a lot to listen to the pains and sufferings of other people and that of the creation. The silence of being, marked by constant prayer, continual repentance and abiding compassion for all creation, assumes the hidden role of roots that invisibly support and sustain the superstructure of Christian life. Silence is the backbone of the Christian monasticism which originated in the Egyptian deserts. The desert fathers, having constant contact with God in solitude, were being transformed in the likeness of God; they became persons of compassion and love. Silence makes man sensitive to hear soft voice from God. It is noticeable that Prophet Elijah, after the noisy wind, earthquake and fire, hear a soft voice from God. (I king 19:11-13). Sometimes, God may be talking to us from the centre of our being. But to hear it better, the stillness of our heart is necessary for it is written thus in Psalms 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God”. It is note worthy that King David even though he was very busy , used to wait for God in silence(Psalms 62:1) One who practices silence can respond creatively to the delicate issues one faces daily.
The keen observance of Lent is good not only for one’s spiritual edification but it has got a vital role to play in the purification of one’s physical body which in turn gives a restorative effect. Lent is, of course, a deadly weapon used against the devil and to ward off all evils from one’s life. But a mechanical observance of lent is, undoubtedly, meaningless and useless.
May God give us strength and enthusiasm to observe this mandatory Lent without failure!