Growing up in a Catholic household as I did, the Lenten season brings back a flood of memories. I recall the curious looks from friends as I explained to them that I couldn’t eat meat on Fridays, but that somehow fish was OK. I remember the smell of that fish cooking, as well as the blandness of a pan fried bread concoction called dummies (pronounced “doomies”)–which to this day I have never seen or heard of outside of my family. And I will never forget the long torture of 40 days without ice cream or candy or whatever it was that I gave up for Lent that particular year. Like with many other religious traditions, I never gave much thought to giving something up for Lent. I vaguely understood that it was to be a sacrifice in imitation of Jesus’ forty days in the desert and that it was something of a penance to help get you ready for Easter. As I got older–and less Catholic–I gave up the practice altogether. It seemed to be a pointless sacrifice that wasn’t producing any results beyond inconveniencing me for 40 days. What I have come to realize over the years is that like many other religious traditions, it is not the tradition that is lacking but my understanding of it. How could I really expect to get something out of the process if I didn’t take the time to understand its meaning? What is the purpose of Lent? First and foremost, Lent is a time to prepare for or recall our Baptism. It should be a time of repentance and reflection that brings substantial change in one’s spiritual life. It should not be so much about the sacrifice of giving something up, but about the spiritual discipline that comes from the exercise. We should redirect our focus onto what is truly important. Looked at in this light, giving up a worldly luxury for 40 days makes sense. It provides a daily reminder that growth requires sacrifice and intent. I am still not convinced that it is necessary to give something up for Lent. I think the same thing can be accomplished by doing something. Perhaps it is spending time reading scriptures or doing devotions daily. Perhaps it is volunteering to help at church or at another charity. Perhaps it is as simple as being nice to your difficult coworker. The important thing is the sacrifice and intent that produces spiritual growth. If the Christmas season prepares us for the promises of Jesus’ birth, the Lenten season prepares us for the world changing reality of his life. Whether we choose to give something up, or do something, Lent can be a time to bring some of that change to our lives.
Lent has always been an interesting time of year for me. To this day I’m not exactly sure what to think and do during the Lenten season. Traditionally Lent has always been a time to attempt to give something up for 40 days–until Easter. Like New Year’s Resolutions, most things I gave up on in the first few weeks. When I was about ten, the first time I attempted to give something up, I tried to give up video games for the forty days. I think I made it about 3 days, before caving in. Since then I’ve tried many different things. I tried giving up soda the next couple Lenten seasons, and actually succeeded in giving up ice cream one year. The laziest I ever got was a couple years ago, when I decided to give up fighting with my sister, something that I knew wasn’t going to complete.
It would end up that year after year I made goals of giving something up, and would generally fail, and didn’t understand the point of giving up something in the first place. It seemed like a pointless idea. It got to the point where last year, I didn’t give anything up. But then I listened and paid attention to what other people from school or church were giving up. People were giving up things like utensils. Honestly, that really changed my mind on things. I realized that the point of giving things up wasn’t just to be a struggle. Instead for me, it was to appreciate the things we have. Pay special attention to the things that we take for granted every day. Things like utensils would really help you realize how helpful they are. If it was possible, it seems that giving up a beautiful sunrise, or the beauty around us, or even the joys that our friends bring us for forty days would truly cause all of us to be thankful for what we have. This is why instead of giving something up, I’m going to try and think of one different thing for each of these forty days that I’m thankful for. I’m going to not do the same thing twice, and I’ll try to think of things that I wouldn’t usually think of being thankful for. Because to me, that’s what’s meaningful about giving something up, realizing how thankful we are for the things we have.