40 days of Lent can broaden consciousness, sensitivity

Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 12:24 AM

Lent is upon us. This ancient Christian season is found nowhere in the Bible. The Church came up with it. Irenaus of Lyons who lived in the 2nd Century wrote about such a season, but it lasted only three days. By the time of the Council of Nicea in the year 325, 40 days were set aside as a period of preparation for those who were to be baptized at Easter. It was not long before this Lenten observance spread to the whole Church.

We have just marked Lent's beginning this year, as always, on Ash Wednesday - that day when those who observe it are reminded that they are dust and to dust they shall return. Prayer, fasting and alms-giving are the traditional ways Christians participate in Lent. By keeping these disciplines we practice being better disciples of Jesus and, so, carriers of God's mission of love and reconciliation into the world. By praying, fasting and giving alms (money) we acknowledge and practice our solidarity with all God's creation, especially with those who are on the margins.

Most Christians pray ... and not just in Lent. Most Christians give to those in need ... and not just in Lent. But not all Christians fast ... even in Lent. I was raised in a church in a time when we all fasted. By third or fourth grade you would hear kids talking about what they were going to "give up." Bubble gum, Coke (I grew up in Texas, and in the pre-Dr. Pepper days, all pop was called "Coke"), and chocolate were the top contenders among the prepubescent crowd in my neighborhood. Post influx of hormones, it was mostly just chocolate. By the time we were young adults, it was alcohol or smoking. How that helped us recognize our solidarity with God's world is lost on me. I don't think we ever even thought about it. We just knew the story of Jesus' fasting for 40 days, and somehow giving up our bubble gum or chocolate was supposed to help us be more holy.

More contemporary ways of observing Lent include giving up bad habits such as negative thinking or being judgmental. Some folks take on something positive like keeping a gratitude journal or being certain they do something kind each day. Recently I've been thinking about the discipline of actually fasting from food. I've been thinking about what, how much, and with whom I eat. This attention to eating that is at the heart of fasting seems an apt entry point to consider the larger concept of standing in solidarity with those on the margins ... those who are hungry in so many ways.

We see them every day in Cortez at Grace's Kitchen and Hope's Kitchen. We see them in our churches' pews, and we see them on our streets. They are hungry for more than food. They are hungry for recognition, respect, and love. Maybe you are hungry in one of these ways.

Paying attention to what food and how much of it we eat, and making a conscious decision to bring our consumption (even if only for 40 days) more into line with those who do not have access to food as we do, can broaden our consciousness. With a broadened consciousness can come a deepened sensitivity to, and compassion for others. It can also bring us to a more honest and realistic view of ourselves and of our own needs versus our wants.

While we think about what we are eating, we might also think about those who are growing our food. We might consider how our lack of support for local farmers (see the February 5 issue of the Cortez Journal) contributes not only to their struggles and pushes them closer to the margins, but also contributes to the struggles of our whole community. These are economic issues for sure, but they are also spiritual issues.

Lent is a time that invites, and challenges us, not only to give to those in need and to pray for them, but for just a little while through our fasting, to come alongside them ... and in doing so, discover at a yet deeper level that, with them and with all others, we are one.

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or