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Secular Lent: an ancient tradition in a modern world

Is today's interest in Lent an opportunity for the church?

“The hope is that you will come out of this period a better person, less prone to excess, less rapacious. You don’t necessarily need to take the Gospels as gospel to participate: many of us could find comfort in and benefit from winnowing down our bad habits.”

That’s how Guardian columnist Dawn Foster wrote about Lent this week. During Lent Christians have traditionally given up food in forms of fasting, and this has expanded in recent years to the foregoing of many other things. It is also notable how popular this once obscure Christian discipline has become among those who would not describe themselves as Christians and may even fiercely oppose much of what the church teaches. In the Yorkshire Evening Post you can even read about 10 things to give up in Leeds. It is common to hear of people giving up social media, alcohol, caffeine or cakes for the six-week period leading up to Easter, it’s fair to say it’s probably less common to hear those same people reflecting on the meaning of the cross and the resurrection and why Christians often practise abstinence. 

Having given up all sorts of things in previous years, including many of the common causes – chocolate, caffeine, and Twitter – this year I’ve not made any such commitment. In other years I’ve followed the other recent trend of taking something up for Lent, Stewardship’s 40 Acts campaign to encourage generosity is an easy (but not that easy) and helpful way of rethinking our habits and lifestyle. 

At the start of Lent this has prompted me to reflect on whether this secularisation of Lent is part of what has stripped it of some of its spiritual significance, and perhaps how we can recapture some of its beauty, while also recognising it as a point in the church calendar that people are increasingly engaging with church and its activities. In a rush for theological purity I don’t want to see people spurned from finding out more about faith, and the season in which the church marks the path to the cross should be a road we are actively helping people travel along. 

Critiquing this new secular Lent’ one writer commented:

Christians are supposed to fast not to purify’ themselves or break themselves of bad habits’, but to focus on God and, specifically, on Jesus Christ’s divine sacrifice. The dogma of Lent and its outward expressions are inextricable from one another. After all, Lent is fundamentally not about living a better life, but coming to terms with the inevitability of death, and through it a new life in Christ.”

Dawn Foster wrote about the modern ascetism’ of many younger adults; the popularity of Marie Kondo and the new minimalism is another feature of this trend. Too often, however, ascetism is less about rejecting consumerism and more about implementing self-improvement. Dealing with bad habits is a good thing and living as a disciple of Jesus is constant quest to follow in His steps and to grow in likeness to Him, but Lent is about Jesus and His suffering. Lent is the period in the Church calendar when Christians focus on repentance and preparation for marking Jesus’ death and resurrection at Easter. 

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As Scott McKnight puts it:

Instead of seeing fasting as a discipline we use, do, or practice in order to’ get answers to prayers, in order to’ become more attuned to God, or in order to’ become more spiritual, the Bible’s focus is on fasting as a response to life’s sacred, grievous moments. If in defining fasting you get quickly to the in order’ element… I suggest look again at the Bible.”

McKnight goes on to point out that what we often refer to as fasting should more appropriately be termed abstinence. We don’t make ourselves good enough for God, I’m reminded of the scene in CS Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Eustace is trying to rip his scales off: he needs Aslan’s help to die to himself so he can be reborn.

It is encouraging to see many who are not Christian engaging with a spiritual practice and it is fair to ask questions of where that might be distorted or pressed into a form that it was never meant to fit. But our task as the church should be to help people find the purpose behind the ancient practice, and in this case not to use it as a tool for self-improvement but instead towards reflecting on Christ’s suffering in our place. Lent reminds us of our need to die to ourselves, the impossibility of us improving ourselves into God’s grace and know our firm hope is in His death and resurrection.

So as Lent begins who do you know who does not know Jesus but is taking part in this ancient practise? Are there ways that you can point them to Jesus, showing them His great love and grace? If you’re taking part in Lent this year, how can your reflection on dying to self not for self-improvement but to remember Jesus’ gift of grace point others to Him?

About the author

Danny joined the Evangelical Alliance in 2008 and has held a range of roles in the advocacy team. He currently looks after media relations and oversees advocacy programmes and projects including public leadership. Before working for the Evangelical Alliance, Danny, who has degrees in politics and political philosophy, worked in parliament for an MP. Danny is passionate about encouraging Christians to integrate their faith with all areas of their life, especially when it comes to helping them take on leadership outside the church. He frequently provides comment on current political issues, both in Evangelical Alliance publications and to the press.

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