Years ago, I used to give up chocolate for Lent. This year, Ash Wednesday fell on the same day as Valentine’s Day. I ask you: is it reasonable to not eat chocolate on Valentine’s Day? I am glad I reconsidered my approach to Lent a long time ago.
The idea behind Lent is to engage in some form of sacrifice to enrich our souls and deepen our faith. It is a time for us to spiritually prepare ourselves to better celebrate Easter. Lent reminds us of Jesus’ forty days of hardship and temptation in the desert when he strengthened himself for His mission.
Growing up as a Catholic, I tended to observe Lent in two ways. I gave up some pleasurable activity (like eating chocolate) for forty days and I did not eat meat on Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. I’m not sure that either ritual had much of a positive impact on my spiritual development or my ability to joyfully commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter.
First of all, avoiding meat on Fridays is not that tough to do. Let’s see…. I can’t eat meat, but I can eat lobster, shrimp, grilled cheese sandwiches, vegetarian pizza, and peanut butter. That doesn’t seem all that sacrificial to me, unless I have to eat all those things at one sitting. That might be pretty penitential, but I don’t think anyone advocates stuffing the body with a feast of nonmeat products as a means of spiritual enrichment.
As far as giving up something goes, I do think there is some intrinsic value in sacrificing something we enjoy as a spiritual exercise to remind ourselves of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. It reminds us to be grateful for what we have and to remember that the greatest gift is salvation. I do tend to feel, though, that a sacrifice is more meaningful if it also generates a positive impact. I don’t think giving up chocolate had any impact on me at all except possibly to make me a teensy bit cranky. Maybe my sacrifice would have been more meaningful if I had saved the money I didn’t spend on chocolate ice cream and donated it to a food bank or something. Instead, I am ashamed to admit that I just spent the money on vanilla instead. I never thought about the second piece of the Lenten observance equation. I understood the “I’m going to give up” part but never addressed the “so I can do X” part.
A friend of mine is doing something this Lent that I think perfectly illustrates the point. She decided to give up television for Lent. It wasn’t that she gave up TV simply to make herself suffer. In fact, she says she is actually enjoying the break from television. In deciding on her Lenten observance, she didn’t focus on what she was losing. She focused on what she was gaining. She gave up television to give herself the time to read and study and pray. She believes that, in this period of focus and reflection, God is teaching her all kinds of valuable lessons.
I have not always been great at following through on Lenten observances that require me to do something overt rather than simply stop doing something. Some years, I tell myself that I am going to read a spiritual book or go to additional worship services or step out of my own internal world and mend relationships with others. Then, suddenly, Holy Week is upon me and I have done nothing out of the ordinary. Some years, though, I have found rich and beautiful observances that I still remember with gratitude. Last year, I began reading the entirety of the New Testament in order. One year, I subscribed to a program of daily Lenten emails and worked on implementing their challenges in my everyday life. A few years back, I wrote a letter to a different person every day during Lent to thank him or her for the richness he or she brought to my life. All of these Lenten “penitential” activities brought me more joy than I can describe.
This year, I didn’t give up anything. I continue to walk my way through the Bible. Last Advent, I started in on the chapters of the Old Testament and I expect I will be at that for some time to come. I am also working through a book about developing a deeper relationship with Jesus and journaling about how I see the author’s message impacting my life experience. I also gave a presentation at a church women’s’ group.
I struggle with wanting to contribute whatever talents I have to support the church and nurture the people of God, yet I am not confident that I have the talents necessary. I am an extremely introverted, shy person. The idea of giving a presentation of any kind is daunting. When I was working, I did a lot of teaching and presentations. I was a popular speaker. People were kind to me. I enjoyed the activity, even though I was always very nervous beforehand. Soon after I finished a successful presentation, I was always consumed with the certainty that the success was a “one off” event that I would never be able to replicate in the future. In addition to my general insecurity about speaking to a group, I have only been to a few of these women’s group presentations in the past. I was not completely certain of what my audience would want or expect from me.
As the day of the presentation got closer, I felt the anxiety level in my gut increase. All the preparation I had done felt inadequate and I felt confused about how to proceed. I had several, ill-formed ideas for the general approach I could take to present the information I had gathered. In speaking to a friend, she suggested that I ask God how to proceed. We agreed that I should try to relax and let the Holy Spirit take over my anxiety about the presentation. I followed her advice and, of course, everything went fine.
I said that I didn’t give up anything for Lent this year. I guess I actually did. I gave up anxiety about the presentation. I gave up the feeling of stagnant comfort when I agreed to be the speaker for the women’s program rather than simply a member of the audience. I gave up a small amount of time and frenetic energy to focus on reflection each evening.
My experience this Lent has not been a journey through a desolate desert. Instead, Jesus has taken me on the scenic route to Easter and I am enjoying a beautiful view!
What do you think? Do you give up anything for Lent or do anything special? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a meaningful day!
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