Piel: Is it OK to give up watermelon for Lent?

Our neighbor George recently shared a conversation he had with a neighbor. The neighbor wanted to know why some religious people rub “black marks” on their faces at this time of the year and deny themselves silly things like watermelon. And then he turned around and said that he believed in the Bible but it never says anything about Ash Wednesday or Lent. What gives?

George said he tried to explain that it wasn’t black stuff but rather ashes. But why ashes he was asked? George told him it was a symbol of mortality. What do you mean mortality?


It means death – it means that someday you are going to die. That’s a lovely thought his neighbor responded but I think that as a follower of Jesus you should be talking more about the joy of living not death.

George said he quickly realized that this conversation was going nowhere. At the same time he realized that his neighbor had raised several interesting points. So since the 40 days of Lent will last longer than this column we will make a stab at dealing with some of them.

It’s true that our Holy Scriptures do not mention Ash Wednesday nor Lent. At the same time as followers of Jesus how do we prepare both spiritually and socially for two of our most important days, Good Friday and Easter?

Ash Wednesday is more than simply putting ashes on your forehead. In fact, George believes that ashes on your forehead where everyone can see them is a mistake. He pointed out that Jesus said “when you fast do not be like the hypocrites … for they disfigure their faces … so when you fast anoint your head and wash your face.” (Matthew 6.16-18). He believes the ashes in the form of a cross should be put on the palm of your left hand which is closer to your heart because Jesus is concerned not with external appearances but the condition of our heart. We can wear ashes all day long but unless our lives change what is the point?

At the same time historically “sackcloth & ashes” have been around since Biblical days as a mark of sorrow for our sin and signify a call for purification. Repenting in “dust and ashes” is found in the story of Job (42.6), Daniel (9.3-4) and in many other places.

Why 40 days? The number appears in Scripture 146 times. Those who read the Bible know that the number 40 is significant but not to be taken literally. As in the account of Noah and his ark, the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness, and even Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness before the start of his ministry. It often means a time of trial or a time of testing or even more so a time of taking a critical look at ourselves just as Jesus was forced to do while in the wilderness.

Just like the season of Advent, which is a time of expectation and a prelude for the Nativity, Lent is a prelude to Resurrection with one major difference. It is a penitential season which means a time for personal reflection and self-examination. We are urged to take a critical look at ourselves and at the same time our relationship to the society around us. The season of Lent is important primarily because it points beyond itself (like Advent). We are challenged to look toward the hope of resurrection. Although we like bunnies and spring flowers, Easter and its message of new life can go on even without both of them.

In regard to seeing Lent as a time for personal reflection and self-examination we find the words of the Psalmist meaningful (51) “create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” More than forgiveness God wants (demands) an inner change in our lives. The Psalmist continues “the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.” More than forgiveness for the external things that we do that are harmful to ourselves and others God wants a change within us.

It does not stop there. We also see Lent as a time for a critical look at our relationships beyond ourselves. Theologian Laurence Hull Stookey adds (1) “What progress am I making in sharing gladly what I have with others, particularly with the stranger and the poor? (2) What attitudes do I convey to those who irritate me? How can awareness of my own need of God’s grace enable me to be more gracious to them? (3) When I hear someone being unjustly maligned, do I speak up to correct the record or am I a silent accomplice? (4) How has my sense of interconnectedness in corporate worship grown of late and how can I move ahead in appreciating the contributions and needs of other members of the congregation to which I belong?”

Let’s close with the denial of watermelon in Lent that was raised in the opening of this article by a friend of George. A question for Lent is should we give up something or take on something, or both? We know a couple who is denying themselves additional food after the evening meal, while another is giving up smoking in the hope that after 40 days go by the desire will be gone. Another is denying herself chocolate while another has made a commitment to turn off television for the full 40 days and invest in reading (good luck!). Instead of giving up something one person has made a commitment to volunteer at a local soup kitchen while another family is planning to visit in a local nursing home. Another is planning to read the Bible rather than reading “fake news” (whatever that means) and still another is getting off the sofa and walking each evening now that it is lighter.

Let the dialogue continue. We only ask that you think on these things.