Not being a member of a liturgical denomination, this is a question I face every February. When I practice the yearly discipline, it is an individual choice to partake in a tradition greater than any one individual–How evangelical of me! But, in all seriousness, I keep the fast of Lent in order to more properly celebrate the feast of the Resurrection. I keep the fast to remember the sobriety commanded by the apostles. I keep the fast to moderate my immoderate self. What does Lent mean to me, who practices it alongside Church tradition, a little kid peeking over the high-Church wall? Each year I answer this question differently. This year, the Lenten fast is one of humility—of human limits.
Christ, Paul writes in Philippians, willingly took on the dismal lot of being born a man. He, who knew of his equality with the Most High God, emptied himself. This supreme humility, the humility to the point of accepting the ultimate limit of man—death, Christ experienced for our sake. He died, embodying the limits of the flesh, that he might overcome them. The months between Christmas, the celebration of the incarnation, and Easter, the triumph over death and sin, are the months of the body. We first celebrate the body as the imago dei in the twelve days of Christmas, and then mourn its limits during the fast of Lent. We mourn the fallen, sin-ridden body that is mankind. This prepares us to know the glorification of Christ raised on Easter morning.
Fasting reminds me of the limits of the flesh. We are dependent upon food. We desire. We are made frustrated by the lack of particular foods and drinks. All these weaknesses of the human body are made more manifest in the discipline of fasting. We must acknowledge our need for physical sustenance, our dependence upon the provision of a God who sends rain and sun that the fields and vineyards might flourish. We are the creature, not the creator.
CTH and I watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button this past weekend. While the film housed some frustrating weaknesses and flaws, its statements about the nature of man were profound, albeit simple. To be man is to be bound, primarily by time. We have only so many days upon earth, and they are numbered for us. We watch as they slowly slip away, but are unable to do anything to stay the tide. Benjamin remarks, “I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is.” We are limited by the body–as an infant, as a youth with broken limbs, and as an old man losing the memory of how he once walked. To be human is to become familiar with saying goodbye.
This is the lot that Christ chose on our behalf.
This is the lot we remember in the fast of Lent. In an age of ease and comfort, we remember the harshness that our sin has gained us. And we say with Eliot:
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire,
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
R. Card Hyatt