“What are you giving up for Lent?”

The following is the full text of the March edition of my monthly column, Tea & Empathy, in the Redmond UMC Newsletter. Click here to go to the RUMC website to download the newsletter.

“What are you giving up for Lent?”

When I was in high school, this question was frequently heard among my friends during Lent and in the weeks leading up to it. It was usually answered with something like meat, chocolate, caffeine, TV, or video games. I seem to have noticed a shift in my community over the last 15 years since my high school days. Folks now talk about “taking something on” for Lent, or more readily admit to not making any changes during the Lenten season whatsoever. Fewer and fewer people are giving something up, or when they do, they link it to Lent only at the beginning—they intend it to be a permanent change after Lent is over.

I’ve been reflecting on what to make of this—is this good? Neutral? Problematic? I think we can gain some insight by looking at the history of Lent. It started way back in the days of the very early Christians, who would join baptismal candidates in fasting, praying, and confessing sins in the 40 hours prior to midnight on Easter. At midnight on Easter, all the baptismal candidates would be baptized. They would be given new white garments to wear and the whole church would join in a feast afterward, filled with the delicious foods and drinks they had been fasting from.

Eventually, this period of reflection, fasting, praying, and confessing of sins—leading up to the celebration of the resurrection and new life of Easter—lengthened to 40 days. During this 40 day period (which did not, and still does not, include Sundays) Christians would fast from particular foods, such as meats (except fish) and chocolate. Sundays were (and still technically are) “feast days” where the fast is not observed.

The real value in this period of fasting is not in the specific item we refrain from, but an intentional way of reflecting on our actions, drawing closer to God, and gaining insight about the ways the Holy Spirit is nudging us to make changes. This might include giving something we love—a food item, a television show, Facebook—for the period of lent and then feasting on it when Lent is over. It might include making a change we intend to be more permanent, such as routinely flossing once a day or beginning an intentional prayer practice.

The tremendous gift of the church calendar is that it allows for times of reflection like Lent. It is also important that we accept and cherish these gifts in ways that draw us into deeper connection with God, and are not just because we feel we “should.” I invite all of us to be in prayerful consideration of how we might use this Lenten season to draw closer to God and gain deeper insight into our lives.

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