The pleasures of giving things up and other Lenten disciplines
When I first discovered the discipline of giving things up for Lent, I thought it was great. The gain in self-knowledge was useful in itself, but it was also a challenge you could make into a game, like doing ten extra push-ups at night. You could feel yourself getting stronger. Even the new knowledge of how weak you are was a kind of strengthening.
Three or four times over the years I’ve written an article commending the practice. After the first one, I knew that when I hit the “publish” button, I could just count down, five, four, three, two, one, and the first comment would appear from someone who wanted me to know that Lent was not negative, that it and the Christian life are not about rules but about a living encounter with Christ, that the real Lenten disciplines are prayer, Bible-reading, and alms-giving, that Lent is not about giving things up but taking things on, that Lent should be a positive time, that it is about growth not sacrifice, that the Christian life should be joyful and not burdensome. Even that we should be “Easter Christians” — or rather, “Easter Christians!!! [followed by smiley face].”
The voices could be perky “Let me share this that you don’t know!” voices or censorious “Let me tell you this before you mislead more people” voices. In either case, they were really annoying. I thought the thing I was sharing was really cool and they tossed it in the trash.
I’ve seen this elsewhere, in responses to other people’s articles and in conversations: what feels like a compulsive or ideological need to put down practices that are the least bit “negative” or “judgmental” and to insist on the positive, uplifting, forward-thinking. This reaction simply distorts the Christian life. It’s like trying to print photos on your home printer when you’re out of black ink. A few will come out right, say if you’ve been taking Monet-like photos of lilies in bright sunlight, but the rest won’t and many you won’t be able to print at all. We only appreciate the light because we know the darkness.
This unrealistic positivity isn’t just a Catholic thing. A friend sent me the link to an article on Lent from a Hip Evangelical website called Mockingbird. It was titled What Would Jesus Do (for Lent)?. The author, an Episcopal minister, argues that in Lent, “our WWJD [What Would Jesus Do?] theology is allowed to go into overdrive.
The writer continues: “People often talk of Lent as a journey, a pilgrimage, a sort of celestial road trip.” (Notice the snark.) “We come by this assessment honestly. There are 40 days of Lent because Jesus spent 40 days in the desert. And so, the thinking goes, we must be on our own sort of ascetic journey, filled with self-denial and hard earned betterment. . . What Jesus did in the desert and what we attempt to do at Lent are almost wholly unrelated."
I’ve read the article through several times and it seems to me remarkably clueless. While it sounds earnest and well-intentioned, it misses the point — devastatingly so.
We don’t fast for forty days only because Jesus did. Leave out any reference to Jesus’ forty days in the desert and Lent remains Lent. Drop that story from the gospels and the spiritual value of giving things up remains. If the Church, without even thinking about Jesus’ time in the desert, decided that forty days was a good length of time for a period of preparation to celebrate Easter, the forty days and the disciplines thereof would work just as well. She could have taken the example of Israel’s forty years in the desert or Moses’ two forty-day fasts recorded in Deuteronomy 9, especially the second.