Having grown up in the Episcopalian tradition, I’ve always associated the season of Lent with fasting. And I’m not very good at fasting in general. Which means I’m really bad at Lent. When I say bad, I mean really, really bad.
One year in college I tried to give up chocolate and found myself buying Coco Puffs at the grocery store because breakfast food can’t be considered chocolate, right? That was before I made a complete face plant into a chocolate fondue fountain at a social event.
Last year I tried to give up television and I didn’t even realize that I was watching television until I was into the second dvd of the Lord of the Rings trilogy at a movie marathon event.
This year I pretended that I didn’t even give anything up because I failed so quickly I didn’t even want to admit I’d tried.
Confronted by my own abysmal failure, I’ve spent some time pondering the purposes of Lent. I’ve always assumed that the fasting was intended to make us holier–that fasting during Lent eliminates something from our lives that is distracting us from God and in giving that one distraction up, we make ourselves into a worthier sacrifice.
But I realized that there’s a flaw in my thinking.
I, of my own volition, cannot make myself a worthier sacrifice. I am incapable of saving myself, reforming myself, purifying myself.
Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (5:16-18). He doesn’t say, “If you summon up enough will power, you will be able to resist your flesh.” No, he says that we master the desire of our flesh when we are led by the Spirit. And in order to be led, we need to submit, lay down our notions of spiritual grandeur, and follow.
While I know that I’ve failed at fasting, I don’t think this season has been wasted space because in my failure I’ve managed to acknowledge my own inability to fix myself and my desperate need for a Savior. And perhaps that’s the purpose of Lent–to see our abyss of sin, to become aware of how futile our attempts at holiness really are, and to be humbled at our own inability to master ourselves. And this is grace–that in our sinful weakness, Jesus would die for us. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross stands in starker contrast when you know he died for us as sinners, than if he had died for us, the self-reformed and perfectly-disciplined fasting-machines.
“You give your help, not in proportion to our merit, but to our needs. You came for the sick and not for the healthy. How true I feel this is. I feel your love as you hold me to your Sacred Heart, my Beloved Jesus, my God, my Master, but I feel, too, the need I have of your tenderness, and of your caress because of my infinite weakness.” –From Meditations of a Hermit, by Charles de Foucauld