TW: eating disorders
The day before Lent begins is known as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), Shrove Tuesday, Fastnachtsdienstag and many other names around the world. Festivities typically involve celebration and excess to sweep clean our physical, and perhaps even metaphorical, cupboards before Lent begins.
Lent is a period of penitence, fasting and contemplation leading up to Easter, the commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection. Lent lasts 40 days, a number that signifies spiritual waiting. Waters rained down on the earth for 40 days before Noah could exit the Ark, the Israelites roamed in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. The first day of Lent begins 46 days before Easter, to allow for Sundays off. Traditionally, during the period of Lent, the liturgy avoids the word “alleluia”, service music becomes plainer, Catholic Christians may forgo meals, and Orthodox Christians may limit their consumption of red meat, sugar or even sex.
The reasons to take part in the Lenten practice of fasting are many: to deny our flesh, to interrupt our daily patterns, to make us pause, to enable us to spend more time in prayer, to bring us into greater community, to make Easter all the sweeter, to lead us closer to God. As a season that comes around every year, Lent can be a moment of rededication within our spiritual lives.
If you are stuck for fasting ideas, type “give up for Lent” into your search bar, and it wilI bring you all manner of suggestions. The idea of fasting can be expanded into general ascetic practices. Many websites discuss waking up early to pray, or giving up gossip. If you’re looking for something more structured, the Exodus 90 challenge, designed specifically with Catholic men in mind, seeks to promote “prayer, asceticism, and fraternity” through daily silent prayer and abstaining from video games. Other websites favor intense exercise routines and cutting out sweets, adding as an aside that this could be a great time to lose 10 pounds.
However, I would like to push back on the idea of Lent being productive towards other goals in our life, such as fitness. If we go back to the earliest iterations of Lenten fasting—missing meals—Lent is primarily inconvenient. The side effects of fasting are often headaches, grouchiness and an inability to concentrate. Typically, one does not choose to go about their daily tasks deliberately starved of energy.
In the context of pervasive productivity culture, it is possible to orient one’s Lent experience towards making sensible choices. However, I would argue that if Lent is just about maximizing our utility, it’s no different from when we make productive or beneficial choices for ourselves during the rest of the year. Furthermore, Lenten practices that focus on exercise and food consumption can easily become conflated with messaging about weight loss, making this time of year particularly difficult for Christians with eating disorders.
If your fasting strategy is to pray to be filled with God’s supernatural energy, regardless of your calories consumed or minutes slept so that you can go about your day as normal, I wish you luck. But maybe Lent is better seen as an invitation to accept inconvenience. In Matthew 4, Satan tempts the fasting Jesus by reminding him of how easy it would be to turn the surrounding rocks into bread. Jesus refuses, even though as the NRSV translation puts it, he is “famished” [Matthew 4:2]. Why does he refuse? Surely not because there is something morally wrong with eating bread. Jesus’ primary concern was not health, weight loss, or being a more attractive romantic partner, as some Lent blogs would advise. Rather, we are told that he was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” [Matthew 4:1]. I do not feel emboldened to argue exactly what greater purpose the temptation of Jesus was for, but I do know that he deliberately denied his physical needs when he could have had them instantaneously gratified.
Cold showers, refusing sugar, abstaining from alcohol, daily exercise, or waking up early could all be successful Lenten practices, as could calling your Mom, helping at a homeless shelter or calling your representatives. UK-based charity Stewardship came up with the 40 Acts challenge, where followers opt-in to receive a good deed to do for others in their inbox every day. Whatever you do, it’s your posture towards God that matters.
My prayer for you this Lent would be for a slowing down and a struggling that forces you to take the long route. I pray that your inconveniences would bring you closer to God and allow you to see the world from another point of view. May penitence and intentionality draw you towards Christ. Amen.
Angela Eichhorst ‘22 is a senior at Harvard College studying Comparative Religion and Classics. She plans to give up sugar this Lent.