03/21/2012 11:47 am ET Updated May 21, 2012

Lent: Rethinking 'Fasting'

A few years ago, I attended a biblical studies conference in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. At a reception on Friday night, I sat at a table with several friends. When I asked one of my friends if I could get him a glass of wine, he raised his hand to me. "No thank you," he said, "I gave up alcohol for Lent."

The next night, Saturday night, I saw him at another reception just after midnight. He had a glass of white wine in his hand. I looked at him, perplexed. "What's going on?" I asked. "I thought you weren't drinking."

"It's Sunday," he said with a big smile, lifting his glass as if to toast me. "You get Sundays off during Lent."

And indeed, a season that began as a 40-day rite of penance and fasting to commemorate the fasts of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in the wilderness has become in American popular culture little more than a game of giving up alcohol or chocolate or a pesky bad habit.

But this 40-day Lenten fast, which is so often taken lightly, occurs alongside an endless, involutary fast for the 36 million people in the United States who live in poverty every day. It is an endless fast for the three million Americans -- 39 percent of whom are children -- who are homeless every day. And it is an endless fast for the 34,000 children in the world who starve to death every single day. For so many people, Easter never comes. And there is no taking Sundays off.

On Ash Wednesday, worshippers confess, "Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty." Ministers mark foreheads with ashes and solemnly proclaim, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Lent is a season of atonement -- of confessing sins, repairing broken relationships, and turning back to God. Lent calls Christians to be truly sorry and take action to correct the things they have done to create or extend suffering among those with whom they share this earth.

In this way, Christians are called to remember the words of God to Israel: "I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved." It is necessary to gather those who are outsiders and unloved. Repenting for blindness to suffering means remembering those who have been forgotten, and crossing the wilderness as rich and poor, homeless and sheltered, feasting and starving. Lent is the memory of both being beloved and being dust. It is to live that memory.

Rather than giving up something small for Lent, believers can live the memory by confronting the temptation to forget the big things. Giving up sweets carries the temptation of forgetting those who are forced to abstain from food. However, giving up sweets as a marker to remember those very people enacts the very purpose of the Lenten season.

Lent is a time for contemplation and expectation. The rituals -- marking foreheads with ashes, making sacrifices, and reflecting on the suffering and death of Jesus -- are openings for deeper connection with God. Within the sacrifices are further openings, in which turning to those who suffer becomes a way to turn to God.

Jesus preached, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me'" (Mt. 25:40). Today's Christians are members of the same family of those who suffer endless and meaningless fasts every day. Taking Lent seriously means recognizing and seeking to break those fasts. It means not taking the Easter celebration and relief for granted. Such practice deepens the Lenten sacrifice and honors the meaning of this season.