Lent is often portrayed as a time of giving up something, a time of self-denial. Thus, it becomes a human effort to prepare oneself for the coming of Easter. It attempts to reflect on Jesus’ time in the desert as a time of preparation for His ultimate self-giving.
But is this consistent with the life of God who comes as Triune lover of the world? Does the Father prepare for the Son’s entrance into the world by limitation, or does His act express and extend the fullness of God that flows from Him as the source of His giving? I would propose the heart of God is one that creates, restores, and renews—these are acts of gifting called grace. This shapes the life of God and prepares for the divine self-giving.
Jesus does have a limitation, as Paul notes in Philippians 2, when taking on human form in preparation to reconcile humanity. But the point for us is not that self-limitation is to be exercised. Rather, He displays what it is to be profoundly moved by love. It is not self-denial, it is self-giving that is the defining intention. I compare this to going on one’s honeymoon and for one partner seeing that getaway as a giving up of being at work and at home. That one is intent on all that is being denied, left behind—rather than on the joy of the honeymoon!
It would be better to say that a honeymoon is an act of love for the beloved that results in laying aside what gets in the way to really focus on serious communion with your beloved in the most focused and playful ways possible. The “normal” aspects of life are set aside, not to be a better person or to self-improve for the other. It is best fulfilled as the passionate pursuit of love that sheds those things that get in the way.
So, if we view Lent as parallel to a honeymoon, we may differently focus on prayer and fasting. We can see those activities as a more persistent pursuit of intimacy with God. These are fulfilling the quest towards the embrace of communication, celebration of the relationship, and dedicated time together. In that case, we are only fasting in order to shed what takes away our energy so that we can be engulfed in the love that is already given and is once again to be enjoyed.
Does the Spirit want us to live in a focused denying of what we deem wrong with ourselves? I think not! The Spirit focuses our attention on Jesus and His love and acts toward us. The Spirit awakens us to what He has said, how He is still our High Priest, and how He calls us friends, brothers and sisters, and children adopted by His Father. The Spirit does not want us to produce synthetic, plastic fruit. Those come from acts of self-made pruning. They are merely our attempts to take away certain things that we self-judge inadequate from our lives as we aim at self-improvement.
Real fruit from comes from love and the call to act like it. One would hope that a couple preparing for their wedding do not need to be told to spend time together. It would be tragic if they could not focus on how their life of love will work. One hopes that they are not buried in discussions on what they will have to give up now or after the wedding. Like the fruit of the Spirit, they do best when they focus on how to mutually give and support one another. In the rearview mirror they will see things that they left behind. They will shed the old practices implicitly as they explicitly commit to the life of love together.
Lent has often missed the joyful side of prayer and fasting. The shadow of denial has hijacked the spirit of the human, forcing them to feel a need to once again clean up the acts of human failings. But Lent could be full of anticipation and eager yearning, more of a spiritual foreplay than a season of celibacy or a chastity belt.
Easter means that the wedding is past but the marriage is in full force. The Bridegroom has come. We prepare for an annual “desert honeymoon.” When I was married, we did a quick appetizer honeymoon to Victoria, BC, Canada because I had to teach the next week. We did a main course honeymoon to New Zealand when there was time soon after. Ever since we have done dessert honeymoons. We are keeping
the freshness and joy alive, preparing for living out of the Covenant of Love that has been fulfilled, but coming to enjoy it newly.
In light of the character, mission, and purposes of God, I would love to see Lent be realigned with the covenanting life of the Triune God. It can be a time of reflection, celebration, deep intimacy, and anticipation. It looks forward to the joy of Easter as God’s love breaks through once again to live in the light that we love only because He first loved us. Even the word repent, is not best understood as a self-motivated act.
It is a turning around because we have discovered the loving-kindness of God. Love turns us around. In Lent, we do not turn ourselves to repent, we are moving into a time that acts out a love so that Lent is a time well spent in loving intent. Lent is the leavening of love.