Lent: Does Giving Something Up Modernize Ancient Tradition or Miss the Point?

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Yellow daffodil

We are just about smack-dab in the middle of Lent, the period of time leading up to Easter (measured either from Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday or the six weeks prior to Easter, depending on your particular flavor of Christianity). For many Christians, Lent is a time to deprive oneself to attempt to better understand the sacrifices Jesus made.

Of course -- as with many religious rites -- Lent can also be a time to "give something up because I'm supposed to," without the thought and reflection that are much more the point of the exercise than the ritual itself. I remember asking a schoolmate why she couldn't eat meat on Fridays during Lent (long ago, back before I became a Christian myself), and her response was: "That's what you do during Lent." When pressed, she offered, "Well I think Jesus really liked fish."

Oh. Okay, then.

I've given things up for Lent before. One year I gave up chocolate; another year I gave up caffeine. I'm not convinced I learned anything from those experiences (other than that I get cranky when I give things up). I remember thinking that, you know, me giving up Heath bars is probably not the same as wandering in the desert for 40 days while being plagued by the devil. I mean, I can't be sure, but I'm just saying.

This year I hadn't planned to give anything up for Lent; I've been participating in a fitness challenge since the beginning of the year that saw me make some extreme diet and lifestyle changes, and I just didn't feel moved to try to "deprive" myself this year when I've already made so many changes and am working on being more mindful, overall. But something I hadn't counted on happened this year: My daughter came home declaring she planned to give something up for Lent. Huh. Turns out that "what you're giving up for Lent" was a hot topic of conversation at the middle school lunch table.

We tried to have a discussion with her about what it means and why people do it, but she kind of brushed us off and insisted that she was giving up candy. My husband and I glanced sideways at one another and congratulated her on her resolve. And then were not even slightly surprised when she cheated. Multiple times. I tried to explain to her that no one is making her commit to Lenten deprivation, and that it's not really meaningful to just give something up for the sake of giving something up (particularly if you keep cheating, ahem), but she's not too interested in anything I have to say about it. I've stopped bringing it up. But this has really driven home the point to me that Lenten sacrifice has become secularized to where it's little more than a dare for a lot of people.

And that made me wonder if anything meaningful can come out of it.

Poking around online turned up a wide variety of interesting reading.

Chrystine of LiberatedMind.com is a self-proclaimed atheist, and gives five reasons why she believes that "Lent is Bullshit," including:

You poor martyrs! How terrible that you have to do without soda, candy, chocolate, video games, TV, etc for a WHOLE FORTY DAYS. Have you given any thought as to all those who live in abject poverty and NEVER have ANY of that stuff? How arrogant of you to think that your god will reward you for giving up such luxuries when so many starve to death every day because they have nothing to eat?

Karla Carrington at That's Fit shares that she gave up chocolate, with an unexpected result:

Only five days in and my co-workers are begging me to eat chocolate as they think I am noticeably more irritable. Between me and you, I agree. I am certain that this experience has shined a light on how heavily I rely on chocolate without even knowing it and how much I consume. Even the frequency is surprising, but I'm sticking to my commitment and have no designs of eating a morsel of chocolate until Easter. Avoiding chocolate has also sparked the urge to consume less sugar.

I also found tale after tale of folks giving up different sorts of social media for Lent, which I'm guessing is a sign of the times. Kelly at Seeking Him gave up Facebook:

In my Protestant background, the observance of Lent is largely left up to the individual. We are not required to observe any particular dietary restrictions and noone (sic)really talks that much about "giving something up" for Lent. In my church, the youth actually tend to take the lead on the discussion and observance of Lent. Their media fast during Lent last year actually gave me the idea of "fasting" from Facebook this year.

[...]

Disconnecting from FB for a while is my way of choosing to do my connecting face to face during this Lenten season. Face to face with my family, face to face with my friends, face to face with myself through more writing, and face to face with God through more study and prayer.

There's a similar story from social.butterfly.experiment when she discusses her decision to give up Twitter for Lent:

I’m re-finding the joy of face-to-face communication. I’m re-learning how voices sound, how different and fulfilling a real laugh is over a LOL and how much happier a real smile makes me feel versus a :) . I’m enjoying the company of the friends that I had before Twitter. Not to say that the associates that I made through Twitter are bad people; it’s just nice to be able to physically hang out and have Pho with a group of people who you enjoy being with.

I also ran across plenty of people resolving to give up something far less tangible than food or social media. Elizabeth at The Divine Gift of Motherhood vowed to give up ... aggravation:

A true sacrifice that also meant acquiring a virtue seemed to be what I needed to do.

Some days I seem to breeze on through, feeling grateful for my beautiful family, nature, and all else God has given me. Other days I feel besieged by children who refuse to cooperate, incompetent clerks, people who have problems communicating clearly, and people who bounce checks.

[...]

I also wonder how I could allow external circumstances to alter my internal state of peace.

And finally, I found a few folks who've turned the Lenten concept on its ear, just a little, like Lindsay from And Baby Makes Three:

This Lent I gave up something a little untraditional. I decided to give up $1/day for a different charity each day. I thought it would be a good way to start giving more to other people. And since it was a small amount there wouldn't be any excuse as to why I wasn't giving. Every year I give up pop, or potatoes, or even red meat, it's hard work and I really don't feel any sense of accomplishment when Lent is over. I've just basically tortured myself for no gain whatsoever.

I do have to say that this year, I have not tortured myself at all. In fact, I love Lent this year.

For those of you whose beliefs include some sort of observance of Lent, how important is it to you? Do you see it as tradition, necessary spiritual practice, a burden, what? Is doing something like giving up social media a great way to modernize an ancient tradition or is it missing the point? After reading so many different takes on the issue, I'm not even sure what I think anymore.

BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir also blogs about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.

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