When Leslie and I were at Harding, we spent a semester studying in Greece, and one of the weeks of the program consisted of touring Egypt. It was amazing to say the least. But our timing was a bit off. We went during the month of Ramadan, a Muslim holiday, that involves abstaining from food and sex while the sun is up. Then the participants break the fast (in community) when the sun sets. It’s actually a great holiday. The only down side is that we didn’t know about it. We had no clue what was going on, and so while everyone else fasted the American college students ate. We found out later that in many Muslim states this was a felony punished by prison time. Everyone except Leslie. She knew what it meant, because since the age of ten Leslie had lived with a Muslim Step-father. She’d seen him practice Ramadan every year. And that’s why during our second year of marriage she started to practice Ramadan. And she got several other Christians to do it as well, including me.
It was a bit different than the traditional Muslim Ramadan though.
By that I mean, we prayed for Muslim people that we knew. We prayed that Hisham (Leslie’s Step-dad) wouldn’t feel a lot of prejudice living in a culture that was not accustomed to his faith, and we prayed that he would come to know the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
One of the things that most faiths have in common is this desire to abstain from something. And Lent is the Christian version of Ramadan. It’s a rhythm that Christians historically have tried to live with of laying down something for a season. It’s serves to remind us that man doesn’t live on bread alone, or sweets, or television, or a host of other things. But here is where I think we can learn from our Muslim friends.
When Muslims practice Ramadan it’s not enough just to abstain from something. When they break the fast at night they are supposed to take the excess money that they would’ve spent on themselves for lunch and invite people who have less to dinner. Which is a bit different than what I hear Lent being talked about these days. Lent can become like a badge that we wear, we’ve given up this and abstained from that.*
But Lent was always more than that. Lent is a time that celebrates Jesus denying himself to identify with others. But his story didn’t end there, and neither does ours. We lay something down not to create a void, but to open up our lives to include and serve others.
Lent is a cadence for Jesus followers. One that reminds us we follow a man who laid down everything for the sake of everyone. It’s a forty day period as we enter into the temptation story of Jesus in the wilderness. But think about this for a moment. Because there’s another time in Jesus’ ministry he’s in the wilderness, surrounded by thousands of hungry people. He could’ve pulled the “That’s not real hunger” card. He could have recounted about the time he went six weeks without food and had the Satan breathing down his neck. A real “back in my day” kind of response. But He didn’t.
Jesus now knew what it felt like to be hungry in the desert, and so he did something about it for them. Ironically, the very kind of miracle he turned Satan down for himself, he know does for the sake of others. And this I think is the beauty of Lent, it’s not only an introspective season for repentance. It’s a season that, if we let it, will compel us to look at the world around us.
I like the way Bono says this:
“Lent is upon us whether we asked for it or not. And with it, we hope, comes a chance at redemption. But redemption is not just a spiritual term, it’s an economic concept. At the turn of the millennium, the debt cancellation campaign, inspired by the Jewish concept of Jubilee, aimed to give the poorest countries a fresh start. Thirty-four million more children in Africa are now in school in large part because their governments used money freed up by debt relief. This redemption was not an end to economic slavery, but it was a more hopeful beginning for many. And to the many, not the lucky few, is surely where any soul-searching must lead us.”
What Bono is saying, in his usually poetic way, is that this is where Lent is headed. To identify with the God who cares enough about the world to enter into it, even at great personal cost, and then act on His behalf.
It’s to remember Jesus was hungry, but also that he fed the multitudes.Because after all, Lent is concluded by Easter, the day where everything began being made new. Where Creation herself started being made right.
Where beauty begins to rise from the ashes, and no one will ever be hungry again.
And that will be something to celebrate.