By Lauren McDonough

The Beauty of Embodiment: How Physical Practices Point Us to Spiritual Truth

My fascination with Lent began with a half-hearted fast when I was a freshman in college.

That year, when Ash Wednesday rolled around, it seemed like my whole sorority flocked to the campus church to attend Mass and get ashes. Everyone was “giving things up” for Lent, from coffee to television to taking the bus to class (meaning they would now have to walk up the giant hill), and everything in between. In an effort to fit in, I jumped in and fasted from social media—something that lasted a whole five days. But, as lukewarm and unholy as that fast seemed, it stirred something in me. Coming from a church where Lent wasn’t a big deal, my fast left me in wonder and curiosity.

  • Why do people fast during Lent?
  • Why the ashes on Ash Wednesday?
  • What is this whole Lent thing even about?

From Concept to Reality

In the years since that Ash Wednesday, Lent has become a significant part of my spiritual growth. Perhaps an analogy can help explain why and how.

In grade school I attended an alternative learning school that was located on the campus of a summer camp. My last year there, in lieu of a typical geometry class, our class built a garden shed in the schoolyard to house the toys we used at recess. We designed the blueprint, calculated the materials we would need, measured the angles, and constructed the shed using hammers, nails, and our own hands. My teachers took something we could learn from a book, and turned it into something tangible. As a result, I fell in love with math that year and went on to get a degree in applied mathematics and statistics in college. Math was no longer an idea; it was a shed in the schoolyard.

When I look back on my middle school geometry class now, I see even more the transformation it brought to my life. It didn’t just shape my entire career trajectory during college; it also changed the way I look at my surroundings. I see geometry in everything now, from buildings to coffee cups. Shapes and angles make up the world around us. The embodiment of my geometry lessons helped the concepts become real to me.

In my life, Lent has served a similar role as that class did.

Often as Christians, we are quick to separate our physical life from our spiritual life. However, the reality is, as humans, we are physical in our very nature. We experience life in our bodies, not apart from them.

Lenten practices, such as receiving ashes and fasting, are physical practices that point to a deeper spiritual reality. They engage us as whole people, thus allowing us to encounter God both physically and spiritually. This, my friends, is the beauty of embodiment.

The Power of Ashes

Every Ash Wednesday, thousands of Christians attend services held at churches throughout the world to hear “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” spoken over them as the sign of the cross is traced on their forehead in ash. The ashes serve as a tangible reminder of our mortality and smallness. This reality points us to Christ. We are created from dust and to dust we will return, but it is in Christ and Christ alone that we have eternal life.

The Power of Fasting

As humans, we all have different kinds of “hungers.” Hunger for food, for relationship, for entertainment, for wine—you name it. Most of the appetites we have are good, and God-given. But they become sinful when they supersede our desire for God himself. When we choose to fast, we intentionally shift the focus of our hunger away from other things and back to God.

The result of fasting is often literal hunger. If I fast from food, I am hungry throughout the day. If I fast from social media, I find myself longing to scroll through Instagram every chance I get. This hunger serves as a tangible reminder of the deeper hunger and desire we all have for Christ—and of the fact that only Christ can fulfill even our deepest longings and hungers.

An Invitation to Deeper Understanding

Receiving ashes, fasting, and setting aside time for prayer remind me of my need for Christ. The physical embodiment of the truths of the gospel that I have experienced through Lenten practices gives me greater understanding of my deep need for Christ. Just as I need food to sustain me, even more so, I need Christ. I am created from dust and to dust I will return, but in Christ I have eternal life.

As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s resurrection this Easter, it is my prayer that you would experience the truths of the gospel in this Lenten season. May the physical practices of Lent unearth the deeper spiritual reality of our need for Christ, and may that reality lead us deeper into the love of the Father. 


Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Laura Li-Barbour.
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Lauren is a staff member with Greek InterVarsity at the University of Rhode Island. She lives by the ocean, and loves spending time outdoors and by the water. Her hobbies include skiing, exploring small towns around Rhode Island, and drinking coffee (yes, that’s a hobby).

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