In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:9-15)
Lent is my far and away my favorite liturgical season. It is also in many ways the most misunderstood. When most people think of Lent, they affix the expression “giving [x] up for” to the front of it, where x equals “chocolate” or “coffee” or “alcohol” or “smoking” or “meat on Fridays” any number of other indulgences. In the popular imagination, Lent is synonymous with renunciation and self-denial.
I grant you, this interpretation of the forty days leading up to Easter has a long history within Christianity. According to one traditional framework, we practice Lenten discipline in imitation of Jesus, who fasted forty days in the wilderness and said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24) – the ultimate act of self-denial being, of course, Christ’s death on the cross on Good Friday. In this schema, therefore, it is the least we can do to give up sweets for a month-and-a-half, seeing as how Jesus gave up his very life for our salvation.
Another, not incompatible interpretation sees the Lenten discipline of fasting as an exercise in controlling our fleshly selves, which must be subordinated to the life of the spirit. As 1 John puts it, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world… comes not from the Father but from the world” (2:15-16). Lent is a season for us to forsake the things of the world–food, drink, bodily pleasures–and “set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). Inherent in this framework is a strong dualistic distinction between the worldly self and the spiritual self, with the latter infinitely superior to the former.
As someone who doesn’t believe in either substitutional atonement or spiritual dualism, neither of these Lenten theologies make a lot of sense to me. Yet it’s still my favorite liturgical season. To understand one important aspect of why that is, I turn from West to East, from first chapter of the Gospel of Mark to the eleventh chapter of the Tao Te Ching (translated by Stephen Mitchell):
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being
but non-being is what we use.
One of my Lenten disciplines this year is fasting one day a week. I do not fast because I believe that the body is evil and needs to be punished in order to live a Godly life (whatever that means). Rather, I fast because I have long had a less-than-healthy relationship with food, in which I eat or drink my feelings rather than engaging them openly and consciously. Instead of using food as a way to fill the emptiness I feel inside, I’m making a conscious choice to empty myself – and to listen for what emerges from that emptiness. Because the fasting is not an end in itself: fasting must always be balanced by feasting, emptying always be accompanied by filling. We pour out the contents of the pot so we can fill that negative space with something else, not we we can leave it empty and useless.
So this Lent, I’m praying for emptiness – the emptiness not of self-abnegation, but rather of self-realization. May we not fast to punish ourselves, but rather to push ourselves to become our best, our fullest selves.