Wednesday, February 26, marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. The history of Lent is deep and rich, with many twists and turns throughout history. While many books have been written about every aspect, I’m going to focus on one today: giving something up for Lent. A practice that mirrors Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness for 40 days (see Matt 4; Mark 1; Luke 4). Growing up non-Catholic (and non-Lutheran), giving something up for Lent was always seen in my house as “one of those Catholic things.” Maybe your house was the same. As the idea goes, “Those Catholics just think they can work out their salvation and burn off some purgatory time, so they have to give stuff up. Those poor people can only eat those nasty fish sandwiches for six weeks.” But actually, not only is this an uncharitable (and incorrect) assessment of Catholics (and fish sandwiches), but an outright dismissal of what could be an extraordinary personal experience and a boon for your spiritual well-being and strength. Here are seven theses I submit for the defense and exhortation of “giving something up for Lent”:
1. Its history in the church is so old it predates the Bible as we know it.
As early as Irenaeus (a second century church father, whose teacher was Polycarp, whose teacher was the Apostle John), the church was using liturgical days and seasons like Lent to teach and increase the piety of believers. Fasting and feasting were always seen as helpful spiritual disciplines, even long before Christianity. Meanwhile, the canonicity of the Bible as we know it (what books go in and stay out) did not really hit its controversial apex until the third century. So yeah, it’s an old practice.
2. It is not just a “Catholic thing”, and giving something up for Lent does not make you Catholic.
Since the practice predates the self-politicization of the Roman See, it can be said to be a universally Christian practice. Giving something up for Lent is not lighting candles to saints or saying the Rosary, both of which would put you on the road to Rome. It does not add or subtract to your salvation in any way, and does not count as a good work. But it does draw you closer to God and into deeper contemplation over His Son’s suffering and death.
3. As long as it is not commanded, it remains a useful tool for personal piety.
Similar to the Lutheran refusal to command private confession and absolution (which is still very much available to you, we just don’t command it), there is no Scriptural mandate to give something up for Lent. As such, we have freedom in the Gospel to do or not to do. While it adds nothing to your salvation (like everything else you can or can’t do), the practice of giving something up for Lent can focus your attention away from worldly things and onto the suffering and death of Jesus your Lord.
4. We are in the habit of living the life of Christ through liturgical means.
If you have any respect for and awareness of the church season, you know that from the very beginning of Christianity the church has observed a schedule, beginning with Advent and the Incarnation of Our Lord (Christmas). Lent is a deliberate season wherein the music becomes somber, the message becomes sadder, the mood becomes like a brooding teenager listening to records in the dark. Why? Because Jesus Christ suffered tremendously and died a brutal inhumane death so that you might not die eternally. Forcing yourself into the darkness of ashes and repentance is the liturgical equivalence of going Christmas caroling and wrapping presents in December.
5. Through deprivation comes a sweeter and more joyous release come Easter.
A glass of ice water is always better on a hot day. A warm blanket is more soothing when the wind is howling. Easter morning is ten times as joyous after you’ve put yourself through 40 days of deprivation and repentance. Like opening a present on Christmas morning, or walking across that stage to receive your diploma, or finally hearing the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the main event of Easter is the acclamation, “He is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!” The sound is that much sweeter when you’ve been whispering your prayers for a month and a half.
6. As long as it is something difficult, it will drive you to prayer and contemplation.
Giving up something like chocolate is only useful to your Lenten piety if you have a serious love affair with chocolate. Many a Lenten devotion has come to naught because the selection of deprivation is too weak. Giving up second helpings of ice cream every other meal is hardly reminiscent of Christ’s sacrificial wandering. Like His fasting, your deprivation should be something that you are legitimately tempted with. Think Satan and Jesus after Jesus fasted for 40 days. If it isn’t hard to do, don’t bother. Likewise, there’s something to be said for making it too hard. Don’t set the bar so high you can’t fight the temptation, but set it high enough so that you face a legitimate temptation and can overcome it. (It will also give you greater self-control in your life overall.)
7. The overcoming of temptation, while not salvific, draws you into devotional contemplation of Christ’s victory.
Just as in #5 above, accomplishment feels amazing. But remember: Lenten deprivation does not add (or subtract) to your salvation in any way. Jesus did it all, and this is not commanded of you. So even if you do give something up for Lent, give God the glory and don’t tell anybody. You are doing this for you, not the world. Facebook doesn’t care. Let your sense of accomplishment and victory draw you into contemplation over the victory Jesus felt when he finally rose again on the third day. All of Lent points to that glorious morning, and you should be pointing to it in thought, word, and deed.
Surely I could go on, but this is enough for now. To conclude, I commend to you the practice of giving something up for Lent. Some kind of food is traditional (meat, alcohol, coffee, entire meals), but you can get creative too (even adding some pious practice). Decide before Ash Wednesday, then let that service (and the ashes on your forehead) be your liturgical starting gun. Then every time you are tempted, pray and contemplate the suffering and death of your Lord Jesus Christ. May God bless you in your personal devotion. I’ll see you on the other side of suffering.
Photo courtesy of Elisa Schulz Photography