What’s the difference between a New Year’s Resolution and a Lenten Fast? As Lent began last week I have been thinking about this question. It seems to me like “What are you giving up for Lent” is often just another round of self-improvement resolutions, starting two months later and failing just as quickly. Is there any difference beyond the religious overtones? What’s the difference between a resolution and a fast?
I think a clue lies in the length of Lent: How long is Lent?
Go ahead. Answer out loud.
If you answered 40, that’s a good start. But it’s the wrong answer.
How long is Lent?
Go ahead. Answer out loud. It’s not a trick question. Just say a number.
Lent is 46 days long.
Some of you either already knew the answer, or you thought about it and figured it out. But the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Easter is 46. So why do we think Lent is 40 days? Because the church fasts for 40 days. But a 40 day fast takes 46 days, because the church breaks its fast on Sundays. 40 days of fasting plus 6 Sundays equals 46 days.
Now why does this matter? It is a clue to the meaning of a fast: Breaking our fast every Sunday reminds us that we do not fast from evil, but from good.
Would you quit smoking except on Sundays? Or quit lying except on Sundays? Or quit cursing except on Sundays? No. These are the sorts of practices that we ought by God’s grace to repent of. We do not fast from sin. We fast from good.
Breaking our fast every Sunday reminds us that we do not fast from evil, but from good.
We fast from good. We set aside good practices for a season to make room for different, perhaps better practices. We set aside good practices for a season to become aware of our dependence on God. We set aside good practices for a season to open ourselves up to the presence of God. We do not fast from evil. We fast from good.
When the 46 day length of Lent first dawned on me, it completely transformed the way I fast. First, I began choosing good things from which to fast. I began seeing that from which I fast not as evil but as good, gifts from God to be celebrated and received from him, rather than grasped at.
Second, I was more faithful in my fasting. To break my fast every Sunday gave me joy and pleasure to anticipate every week. It was a little bit of Resurrection in the midst of the journey to the Cross.
Third, I encountered God more deeply in my fasting. Fasting became less about me and my own self-improvement and more about God and his presence in my life. Fasting became a way of making room for God. And not only in my fasting, but also in my feasting: for to break my fast every Sunday was to receive back from God that which I had handed over to him.
So, what is the difference between a New Year’s Resolution and a Lenten Fast?
A resolution is about self-control, self-discipline, and self-improvement. All good things. But not the same as a fast. A Lenten fast is about self-renunciation, self-denial, and self-awareness. A Lenten fast is not giving up bad things, but letting go of good things — letting go of the good gifts of God so that we let the Giver himself be the one good we seek.
This Lent, I invite you to fast. Not from evil. But from good.
This Lent, I invite you to fast. For only 40 days, breaking your fast every Sunday.
This Lent, I invite you to fast. Not to improve yourself. But to open yourself.
This Lent, I invite you to fast.
-John L Drury
Monday March 10, 2014