There are some books out now which attempt to show how Christianity provided
the foundation for Capitalism. The reasoning is complicated and obscure and, in my view, completely wrong. No religion that
faithfully observed a season like Lent would ever have spawned an economic order explicitly valuing greed, avarice, gluttony,
and wanton consumption. Lent, of course, is about things that are utterly inimical to economic growth: self-denial, fasting,
abstinence, penitence, and confession. Indeed, the more integrated into the global market a society becomes, the less likely
it is that it will take values like those of Lent seriously. For most Christians in America, Lent has no impact on daily life
When I was growing up, Protestants barely did Lent. At most it was a liturgical
season when we brought out the purple paraments and communion table runners. But Lent most certainly did not alter our diets.
Indeed, I remember the envious looks of my Catholic friends at school as I ate my liverwurst sandwich, while they scowled
over their cold fish-sticks. Lent and fasting were supposedly Catholic superstitions that we Presbyterians were well rid of.
Later, I learned that the Reformers were actually very enthusiastic about
the spiritual benefits of fasting. Even the ones who recommended ditching Lent, did so not because they opposed fasting but
because they questioned the Pope’s authority to mandate it. The Puritans in particular instituted a regular fast coinciding
with Lent in the springtime in conjunction with the planting of crops. The fact that fasting fell out of favor among Protestants
had more to do with their being swamped by the emerging economic order than with any kind of spiritual maturity.
And the recovery of Lent among Protestants today is in part a recognition
of our own disestablishment as the "civil religion" of the Western world. Freed from the task of providing religious cover
for the policies of secular institutions, the church may now recover its own true identity. We can now do things for spiritual
reasons in obedience to the Lord; we don’t have to be motivated by primarily political concerns.
Of course, this does not mean that spiritual practices do not have political
overtones. If the church does follow its Lord and "seek first God’s Kingdom," that will be interpreted correctly as
a rejection of pervasive philosophies that demand that we seek first something else. For the early Church, the confession
that "Jesus is Lord" was viewed as subversive by the empire. If this is becoming increasingly the case in our own time it
will be because more and more Christians are starting to do wildly counter-cultural things, like observing a Lenten fast.
A springtime fast was originally a time of conservation of resources and
limiting consumption. In agricultural societies this was a matter of necessity and survival: seed had to be saved for planting;
animals had to reproduce rather than be eaten. These kinds of necessities are not as obvious in our global market economy
where our lamb chops come from New Zealand and our blueberries from Chile. However, given the growing global ecological crisis,
values like those that Christians have traditionally practiced in Lent have renewed relevance.
Lent is intended to be a time to prepare the soul for the joyful celebration
of the Resurrection. But this is not something done in mere theory or just talk. It was never limited to reading good books
or even deepening spiritual life in prayer, as important as that is. Neither is it taking on some new discipline or mission
work. Of course, our observance of Lent can and should include these things and more. But they are not the central point.
At its heart, Lent is a fast. It is a time for non-consumption. It is something
you do with your body. Lent is a season when, with particular intentionality and consciousness for God’s justice and
righteousness, we voluntarily choose to consume less of the world’s resources. As such, it goes against everything advertisers
and sellers would have us do. It goes against the needs and demands of a consumer economy. That is why observing Lent could
be seen as a subversive activity. It proclaims our loyalty and allegiance to another Lord, the Creator God of Jesus Christ.
Finally, Lent is not about a morose and sour self-flagellation. It is not
self-punishment or penance for our sins. It is not an expression of self-hatred. Rather, in Lent we choose life... not just
our own life, but the life of the whole planet. We choose to take less for ourselves, that there might be more available for
the life of others. We choose to value the future. We choose to follow the example of the Lord Jesus, who walked lightly upon
the Earth and lived in humility and simplicity, showing us the life of God in love.