Doing Lent Justice

by Christopher Lortie

“What are you giving up for Lent?” If you are part of a tradition that follows the church calendar, I suspect that you have likely prepared yourself for this question or perhaps have already been asked a few times! As we enter the season of Lent, a period of forty days leading up to Easter, many focus their attention on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Lent is a time for reorientation and transformation. This tradition connects back to the early church when converts to Christianity, who were baptized on Easter, would spend the forty days beforehand fasting, which is patterned after Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13).

For many people, fasting plays a key role during Lent, often involving changes to when and what we eat. Meals are skipped, chocolate is moved to the back of the pantry, and vegetarian cookbooks are dusted off. Some take the concept of fasting in broader terms and give up things like entertainment or social media. Fasting or giving things up for the season of Lent is meant to create space in one’s life to reflect, take stock, and make positive changes.

A hiking trail in Tuscany, Italy. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Lortie)

In the Old Testament, fasting is most commonly associated with a time of humility and mourning. Fasting took on greater emphasis after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, along with the temple, and exiled many of the people of Judah (2 Kings 24–25). Around seventy years later, after the people were allowed to return and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1–6), many wondered whether they should continue fasting. Halfway through the temple rebuilding project, a delegation from Bethel inquired of prophet Zechariah about whether fasting was still necessary (Zechariah 7:2-3).

Before answering the question, Zechariah asks whether the times of fasting have oriented them to what God desires (7:4-6). Zechariah does announce that the times of fasting would be replaced by festivals of joy and gladness (Zechariah 8:18-19); however, he only does so after giving a series of messages about the restoration they hoped would happen, the first and last of which draw specific attention to the need for justice for the vulnerable in their community (7:8-14; 8:14-17). For Zechariah, there is a necessary link between fasting and almsgiving and the needs of the community.

Similarly, Isaiah 58 discusses the purpose of fasting and provides an even sharper critique. The prophet accuses his audience of using fasting as a tool to focus on their longings without considering God’s desires. Isaiah makes clear the type of fasts that are desired by God:

6Isn’t this the fast I choose:
To break the chains of wickedness,
to untie the ropes of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free,
and to tear off every yoke?

7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
to bring the poor and homeless into your house,
to clothe the naked when you see him,
and not to ignore your own flesh and blood?” (CSB)

As with Zechariah, Isaiah argues that fasting and almsgiving are interwoven. If fasting is only self-serving and not accompanied by meeting the needs of those who require it, then fasting misses the point.

Tuscany, Italy. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Lortie)

Fasting and practicing the other aspects of Lent should result in the eyes of the people to open to the injustice around them and then inspire them to work for change. For example, to lack food should inspire action to create change for those who lack food consistently. 

Isaiah 58 and Zechariah 7–8 also draw focus to the fact that the practices of Lent are intertwined: prayer to help align our desires with those of God, fasting to attune ourselves to the needs of others, and almsgiving to send us out to work for positive change and address injustice. By incorporating actions to work for positive change in our Lenten routine, this time can be transformative for us as individuals, and also create positive change within society.

This Lenten season, in addition to asking yourself and others, “What am I/are you giving up for Lent?” perhaps also ask, “What spaces am I/are you called to enter to work for justice?”

Christopher Lortie is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Providence University College, Otterburne, MB.

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