By Jonathan Powers
Lent is here again, and Catholics like myself are looking forward to a season of spiritual reflection and prayer. For many, Lent is a time for repentance, for others an opportunity for helping others through charity. At the same time, it has become a question for those who don't believe fasting is the way to earn God's love. Is fasting all there is to Lent? How does one strike a balance between extremes?
Lent in all its glory and grandeur is celebrated best by Catholics, and especially in countries with large, pious Catholic populations such as Spain. It's an anticipated season, a signal that the wait for the resurrection of Jesus has officially begun. Marked in the beginning by Ash Wednesday and at the end by the Easter celebration, Lent can be a time for much spiritual uplift for a Christian regardless of whether they are Catholic or not.
Like others in my faith, I too have been fasting during Lent, mostly giving up meat and alcohol for the forty days preceding Easter. Being a (red) meat lover by nature, and painfully needing my beers at the end of a hard day's work, Lent is always a challenge for me, a way to prove to myself that I can give up something for the sake of God. I can't tell you what Lent means to me, and until recently I thought that avoiding meat and alcohol were more than a sufficient offering.
It was only when I began my interfaith journey two years ago that I found people of other faiths fasting equally strictly or even more than I. As I developed an interest in interfaith dialogue and began to meet with people of other religious traditions, I learned that fasting is not exclusive to me or my Catholic group, but is quite standard in some shape or form for most religions. I learned that Muslims fast every year during Ramadan, and was astounded to find that their complete and absolute fast is so different from mine. Yet the aim is similar, to achieve a higher level of piety, to gain God's pleasure and nearness, to seek forgiveness.
Many friends of other faiths ask me why I fast during Lent. To them, especially to Muslims, the avoidance of two out of the hundred things I eat all year is perhaps taking the easy way out. Fasting, but not really? I love the friends I have made during my interfaith journey, but sometimes this fasting can seem almost like a friendly competition. A laughing quest to see who can stay hungry longer, who can give up more during Lent/Ramadan/Yom Kippur.
So here's what all these fasts, and others I haven't named, really should be about, rather than just abstaining from one or more thing one puts in one's mouth: love and repentance. Lent should be about giving up what one's heart desires. It should be about seeking forgiveness, repenting for the millions of sins committed knowingly and unknowingly. It should be about building a stronger, more spiritual relationship with God. It should be about reflection, and growth and strength. That's why some Christians are able to celebrate Lent without giving up food, while others don't truly understand the meaning of this holy season even while hungering for a cheeseburger. That's what I learned from not just my own faith tradition but also through interfaith dialogue. Fasting from food is just a formality, and it doesn't really have any real effect until we fast deeper.
Jonathan Powers is a youth group leader at a Houston-area Catholic church. the views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.