Lent is around the corner.
Every year around this time, I’m in the company of people who are talking about what they plan to give up for Lent. This practice of self-deprivation has its roots in Christian practices of fasting, a practice long associated with the season of Lent. Catherine Bell, the ritual studies scholar, offers this historical overview.
[The] Lenten fast was originally more severe — only one meal per day and only after the sun had gone down, a regimen echoed in later Muslim practices. By the ninth century, however, this single meal had been moved to noon, and a light snack was allowed at bedtime; meat was still forbidden and at various times animal products like milk, butter, and eggs were also avoided.… By the 11th century, all Christians were observing relaxed versions of this penitential practice.… Penitence was certainly one of the main reasons for Christian fasting, but fasting was also an emulation of Christ’s forty days in the desert without food or water and a method of disciplining one’s physical desires.*
You can see from her description how things have slowly changed over time. This change in our behavior hasn’t stopped. Some of us, holding tightly to the promise of the free gift of our salvation before God, regard such practices with suspicion. We wonder if such behaviors aren’t born out of a felt need to do something to be worthy of Christ’s gift. Others of us – the more traditional souls – follow an annual pattern. We abstain from the same thing every year. It’s part of who we are in the season of Lent. But many of us, having not grown up with Lenten fasting as a practice and yet intuitively recognizing its potential benefit, cast about for things to set to the side for the next forty days (not including Sundays.)
It’s among this latter group (in which I include myself) that I think our Lenten spirituality takes a decidedly American turn. As any trip to the bookstore will confirm, the American self-help impulse is so pervasive, that it becomes impossible for us to imagine any deprivation without a corresponding benefit, beyond the simple practice itself. Get us talking about what we’re giving up for Lent and the conversation will soon be nearly indistinguishable from what we were talking about regarding our New Year’s resolutions! Four years ago around this time, I was making a similar observation and included one blogger’s resolve to give up complaining for Lent. I’m not criticizing this shift in thinking. It is, however, a shift from what Bell describes regarding our Medieval forebears and I wonder if it has to do with what it means to live a life of plenty. Whereas Christians in Medieval Europe and (present day Christians around the world) couldn’t always count on having enough to get by, we actually have too much, with nearly everything we might want just a voice command away (“Hey Alexa!”)
So for them, Lenten fasts were a real privation. For us, they seem to look more like a needed reduction: red meat, alcohol, chocolate, complaining. You get the picture.
What do you think? Is this an accurate read on contemporary spirituality? Are you giving something up for Lent? If you are, what is it and why? You can share your plan anonymously and see what others are saying. Just type in the code “E672” here. I’d love to hear from you.
As always, if you’d like to talk about this or anything else with me or Deaconess Kristin, we invite you to book us.
Feb. 27, 2019
*Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, p.123.