Growing up, the only holidays my family really celebrated at home were Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthdays. On Labor Day, we often met with church folks for softball on some lumpy school diamond. We celebrated Easter with resurrection songs and joyous exultation that wafted into church with the fruit and cinnamon rolls at the before-service Easter breakfast.
But the rich history of more minor church holidays we never touched.
Since starting a family of my own, I have given more thought to holidays. How can I bring traditions into my home that cradle and exalt the Christian story with the everyday stuff of food, conversation and physical objects?
I was inspired to consider church holidays by author Sarah Clarkson, who writes, “Marking out a rhythm of celebration within space and time is one way of immersing ourselves in the ongoing narrative of Christ’s real, advancing story.”
Lent, a season I associate with asceticism and fasts, is approaching. But this year, inspired by the words of Kimberly Conway Ireton in The Circle of Seasons, I’ve been reconsidering my perspective.
“We can be raised to new life only if we have first died to the old one,” she writes. “That is the challenge — and the gift — of Lent.”
This year, Lent begins on Valentine’s Day — a holiday I celebrated as a school child with punch-out valentines for my friends. However, the man for whom the day is named — a priest and a martyr, church history says — probably knew more about dying to self than he did about candy hearts and paper tributes.
Is the Lenten fast a way for me to learn self-sacrifice? Is there value in sacrifice?
I have long been confused at the purpose of fasting. I’ve tried it, but it always felt like a bid for attention. Was God supposed to care that I wasn’t eating? It seemed strange to think that this should impress God or give my prayers more power.
The words of Ireton, combined with a growing receptivity in my own heart, help me understand fasting’s purpose.
“[Fasting] creates in us an emptiness,” she writes. “Where there used to be something (food, a book, a TV show), now there is a blank, a hole, a space. God longs for those blank, empty places in our lives — not for the sake of emptiness, but so God can fill us with himself.”
Fasting is emptiness that waits to be filled. In a similar way, sacrifice is deficiency or brokenness, because when I give, I no longer have.
Whether I sacrifice for the good of someone else or for my own spiritual well-being, it is in this brokenness that God can work. In brokenness, God repairs. In deficiency, God covers the gap.
Sacrifice can never cover my sin. Jesus did that on the cross. But it can honor God, help others and break my hard heart and proud spirit, leaving me malleable and teachable in God’s hands.
If sacrifice leaves me smug instead of broken, perhaps it is a performance instead of a giving up.
I find several biblical principles relevant to fasting:
We honor God by giving our firstfruits. Whether the best hours of a day or the first profits of a business, firstfruits are meant to be given with reverence and joy. “Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine” (Proverbs 3:9-10).
Halfhearted or dutiful sacrifice dishonors God. “ ‘What a weariness this is,’ you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord” (Malachi 1:13).
More than sacrifice, God longs to see in us mercy, humility and justice. “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:7-8).
Consider the widow with her two mites. She gave generously. Jesus said she gave everything she had. She gave from her need rather than from her sufficiency, creating an emptiness in her own life. This is the meaning of sacrifice.
During Lent or any other time, this is the kind of sacrifice we are invited, not mandated, to give.