The Meaning of Repentance, Sacrifice and Fasting in Lent

The Meaning of Repentance, Sacrifice and Fasting in Lent
Lent is around the corner again. My Facebook feed has been full of discussions about Lent and articles with this, that or the other Lenten recommendation. It’s amazing how many ways there are to “live Lent”. And each way has both die-hard supporters who see the spiritual value of that particular path through Lent, and critics who see the potential pitfalls. For an example of what I mean, take a look at an article Simcha Fisher wrote a few years ago – I think she did a pretty good job of showing some common approaches to Lent and the very real benefits and potential drawbacks of each.

I don’t think there’s one “right” way, or even “best” way of living Lent. I believe there are as many ways of living Lent as there are people. Although we often approach Lent programmatically, I prefer to see it as a journey, or dialogue between the soul and God. A dialogue is hard to copy or recreate, because it depends largely on the heart and mind of the people involved. A dialogue can have a certain objective and topic, but where it leads is hard to determine in advance. Heart to heart encounters aren’t predetermined. They revolve around receptivity and response.

Similarly, while it helps to have some sort of plan to make sure the season doesn’t pass us by, Lent isn’t really something we can control, plan out and execute – it is above all an invitation to be attentive to and respond to God’s grace. The exact direction that takes us in can change and develop as the season progresses, with God responding to our desires and efforts and us, in turn, trying to accept and respond to the grace he offers.

So I’m not here to advocate for one type of Lent or another, for this sacrifice and form of fasting or that one. I am here to advocate for an openness of heart, mind and spirit to where the dear Lord will lead when planning your Lent, and I believe that taking a look at the meaning behind a few terms we commonly associate with Lent – namely, repentance, sacrifice and fasting – can help us find a fruitful way forward.

Repentance.

The Bible has three words used for “repentance”. In the Old Testament, two words – shuv and nacham are associated with repentance. Shuv: to return or turn back. Nacham: to feel sorrow or be sorry. Repenting from sin, therefore, implies turning back, or away, from sin out of sincere sorrow for it.

When we turn to the New Testament, however, we find another word being used for repentance: metanoia. Metanoia combines the concepts of time and change, with the implication that something becomes different or thinks differently afterward. Metanoia can refer to a change of mind, heart, behavior or consciousness. This indicates a certain development in our understanding of repentance. In the New Testament, i.e. with the arrival of Jesus, repentance no longer means simply turning away from sin, but points to a much deeper spiritual conversion. .

Metamorphosis, the process through which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, is a form of metanoia that illustrates the depth of the New Testament understanding of repentance. When the caterpillar undergoes the change, it doesn’t simply turn back, or revert to the way it began, but rather undergoes a complete transformation that both preserves its former self, sheds parts of its former self and, ultimately ends up going through a new birth, or rebirth, completely transformed.

In Christianity, the concepts of repentance, baptism and resurrection are closely related. The Lord’s own sacrifice on Calvary indicates this. Man had sinned. But, in sacrificing himself for man’s sin, the Lord didn’t merely turn back the clocks, erase original sin and return man to his condition prior to the fall. Rather, the Lord opened the path of complete transformation, which indeed includes victory over sin and death, but also leads to something new. According to Revelation 21:5, “The one who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.” In John 3, the Lord tells Nichodemus that he must be born again, born from above, born of water and Spirit (Jn 3:1-8). Rebirth. Re-creation. Baptism. Resurrection. Metanoia. That’s what repentance is about. That’s what Lent’s about.


Sacrifice.

This is a word we hear a lot of during Lent. After all, isn’t it a season of sacrifice? In the end, it depends on our understanding of sacrifice. The biblical concept of sacrifice isn’t the same as the “no pain, no gain” concept of sacrifice, or the idea of sacrifice as something we arbitrarily give up in order to overcome ourselves or do something difficult. From a biblical perspective, the concept of sacrifice is ultimately one of offering and relationship.

  • We give the best of ourselves and what we have.
  • We acknowledge the truth about ourselves (our poverty) and the truth about God (his greatness) through the recognition that all we have is a blessing from God and is rightfully his.
  • Our sacrifice is, above all, an act of love.
  • The term itself combines two other concepts: sacra (sacred or holy things) and facere (to do or perform)

Fasting.

When fasting, we give up certain types or quantities of food or drink. Like sacrifice, a degree of self-denial is involved. But, also like sacrifice, fasting has an eminently positive dimension. Hunger and thirst are expressions of natural human desires for our basic needs. Fasting physically is one way of reminding ourselves of our deep need for God and whetting our spiritual appetite, our hunger and thirst for God. We instinctively feel our own needs and emptiness and, all too often, spend lots of time trying to fill our needs with things other than God. Fasting more frequently than usual during Lent can help us turn to God for the fulfillment we seek.

As a final suggestion, coming from personal experience, don’t be afraid to re-evaluate your original resolutions during Lent and make changes along the way as needed. Some years, our original plan might work, but other years, it might take a few tweaks, or even a major overhaul along the way. And that’s OK. There are at least two occasions, that we know of, when Our Lord himself changed his plans along the way: the finding in the Temple, and the Wedding at Cana. On both these occasions, Jesus had one idea in mind, but ended up altering his plans. He didn’t change plans arbitrarily, but as an intentional response to God’s grace. Both times, he heard his mother’s desires and plans, realized that God’s will was being expressed through his mother, and responded accordingly.

So make a plan. Through yourself into it, mind heart and will. Try to stick to it. But keep an ear out, and don’t be afraid of making adjustments.

Wishing all of you a blessed Lent.

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