On this, the first day of Lent, I was dismayed to find this message from a Christian ministry in my Twitter feed:
What are you doing for Lent? Take a photo and hashtag it #VivaLent to enter to win prizes weekly
This tweet is emblematic of the Lenten takeover of social media and the corresponding social media takeover of Lent. It starts with people letting their friends and followers know they will be fasting from Facebook and Instagram and ends with the smart aleck who tweets that he will be giving up virginity for Lent.
Lent is more popular than ever, thanks in part to all of this publicity. It is increasingly observed by those from low-church, non-liturgical traditions. Yet the more mainstream Lent becomes, the more it seems to be divorced from the biblical teaching about fasting.
If we look at what Jesus said about fasting, we find it is the opposite of putting ashes on your face and tweeting a picture.
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18, ESV)
I don’t think the folks who enter to win prizes by tweeting their Lenten photos will be eligible to receive the reward promised in Matthew 6. The biblical ideal for fasting is that we should rend our hearts, not our garments (Joel 2:13). Fasting should be a secret season of repentance, not a public declaration of abstention. The reward for fasting is not the admiration of others, but intimacy with a forgiving Father.
If Lent is the only liturgical season that you celebrate, it is likely to end in discouragement and defeat. Lent exists to lead us to Holy Week, when we can nail our fasting failures to the Cross. Holy Week takes us to the Resurrection, when death is defeated and the words “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” are no longer final.
If you observe Lent, do it with your Bible open. Let it be not a campaign to build up your own righteous branding but a time for meditating on your need for Jesus. And please, lay off the hashtag #ashtag.