Where we live, its fish-fry season. If you live in the Americas, Europe, or Australia, you might also notice Friday fish-n-chip specials or the filet-o-fish featured at McDonalds. If you were wondering why fish seems so popular in February and March, it’s because this is the Church season known as Lent, when Christians around the world take time to fast, pray, and prepare themselves to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection. Part of this tradition is to abstain from meat on Fridays…but since fish was not historically understood as meat…enter the fish-fry, fish sandwich, and even the filet-o-fish!*
Over the years, I’ve certainly fasted, and not just from meat on Fridays. As a vegetarian for many years, giving up meat was not really “fasting,” so I’ve tried other traditional fasts—fasts from sweets, from alcohol, from food while the sun’s up, and from food more generally. As a white, Western woman, many of these fasts have been more than a little tainted by concerns with body image. Sometimes these fasts have been simply a religious excuse for self-destructive behavior. Rather than fasting leading to prayer and a spirit of generosity, fasting created a church-sectioned outlet for self-loathing, the silent twin of selfishness.
Needless to say, I needed a new way to understand Lent.
A few years ago, a Scottish forester friend at Regent College mentioned that Lent comes at the end of winter, when the food stores of traditional societies would be nearly depleted but before the earliest spring harvests were ready. This observation has haunted me ever since and is growing into an ecological understanding of Lent.
Understanding Lent as a time of fasting aligned to a real and practical need to conserve resources for the survival of the community reframes the season as a time of learning to live smaller. In this understanding, Lent is an opportunity to combat the ecological and psychological hubris that places my individual lifestyle ahead of the needs of others. It is an opportunity to cultivate practices that make room for others at the table of the world.
In a word, Lent is about hospitality. Hospitality, rightly understood, isn’t simply about inviting people to dinner or to stay the weekend; it is about making room for others beings, tending to their needs, their brokenness, and their longings. This doesn’t mean we silence our own brokenness, need, and longing. Rather, we prioritize the needs of others while also recognizing our own need because it is only out of an acknowledgement of shared brokenness that we can serve each other as equals.
But such Lenten hospitality doesn’t find its end in our efforts to make room for others—it leads us to the cross. As a preparation for Good Friday and Easter, making ourselves smaller during Lent is about understanding more fully what it means for God to make himself smaller in Jesus—small as a baby, small as a young carpenter, small as a man tortured and dying—all so that he can make room for us at his table.
* If you are unfamiliar with Lent, it is traditionally understood as a time of penance preparing Christians to remember the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Now, penance is an old word involving a few different activities. The first element of penance is cultivating a feeling of being sorry for the ways we screw-up our lives, other people’s lives, and the world. Fasting was one way to enact that sense of being sorry for harmful or damaging actions (and in-actions). The second part of penance is prayer, which focuses on naming wrong action and consciously choosing to be different. As we get hungry and say no to chocolate or wine or food, the idea is that hunger reminds us to pray. The final movement of penance is taking up practices that break bad habits and cultivate new habits. One of the most common new practices is alms giving, that is giving of one’s time and resources to those in need. The underlying assumption here is that most our harmful actions are grounded in selfishness and pride and so, by acknowledging these actions before God and turning our energy to the needs of others, we break that self-centeredness.