It got really quiet during the worship service when Pastor Arthur Jackson III announced a 40-day corporate fast for the church recently. He plainly laid out the plan for the parishioners at Antioch Baptist Church of Miami Gardens and, immediately following the services, there was excitement and animation as I heard people talking about their intention to be a part of the church’s fast which begins March 5.
Now, a corporate fast for 40 days was not the norm when I came up in my faith community, in a Protestant Pentecostal church. Often, the pastor there would declare a fast for the congregants but seldom did it last for more than a day.
Neither was I aware, when I became a practicing Christian, of the significance of Mardi Gras and Carnival and how these two celebrations related to the season of Lent. Our family heard about Lent but thought only Roman Catholics observed it.
Now as a mature Christian, I know that Lent involves primarily fasting (the opposite of feasting) and that the early observers of Lent would eat all they could the day before on Mardi Gras, which means “Fat Tuesday” or have Carnival, which means “Flesh be gone,” to prepare to refrain from eating meat and then living lives of controlled religious sobriety beginning Wednesday the next day.
Lent begins this year on March 5. The term “Lent” was adopted in the late Middle Ages and, as sermons began to be prepared and delivered in English, rather than in Latin, the English word “lent” was adopted. This word initially simply meant “spring.” But Lent, in the Christian tradition, is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the Christian believer — through prayer, praise, penitence and patience – for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the death and resurrection of Jesus which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates on the Resurrection Day of Jesus Christ.
Although Lent is a Christian event, fasting is not proprietary to Christians. Muslims fast, as well. As a matter of fact, Fasting is the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam, according to the Sunni faith and involves fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
During Ramadan, Muslims are prohibited from eating, drinking (including water) and engaging in sexual activity from dawn to dusk. They are also encouraged to temper negative emotions such as anger and addiction.
Jews also observe fast days. Fasting for Jews means completely abstaining from food and drink, including water. Traditionally observant Jews fast six days of the year. With the exception of Yom Kippur, fasting is never permitted on the Sabbath, for the commandment of keeping Shabbat is biblically ordained and overrides the later rabbinically instituted fast days.
What makes the Lenten season different from the other faith traditions is our focus on the life of Jesus. To better understand Lent, I use a quotation from Frederich Buechner:
“In many cultures, there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year’s income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe the forty days of Lent is to do the same thing with roughly a tenth of each year’s days.
“After being baptized by John in the River Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question of what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves… to answer questions like this is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”
May you be bettered, benefited and blessed during this holy season. And may He who came to the world to save sinners strengthen us to complete our fasts with humility.
Dr. Walter T. Richardson is pastor-emeritus of Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in South Miami-Dade County and chairman of the Miami-Dade Community Relations Board. He may be contacted at wtrichardson@Bellsouth.net. Website: WTRMinistries.com