Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lent: this one really is about Lent

You may remember that the church tradition I grew up in didn't celebrate Lent. Lent is an adopted tradition for me. And to be honest, I have pretty mixed feelings about it. In Christian theology, the whole point of Jesus's death on the cross is so that we don't have to suffer for our sins. It's called "substitutionary atonement" if you're interested (and I just googled that and found a fascinating wikipedia article. I had no idea there were so many nuances.)

Technically speaking, Lent--like Advent--is a season of preparation for the celebration of a major church holiday (Lent for Easter, Advent for Christmas). But popularly speaking, most people use Lent as a time to identify with Christ's suffering. They give something up to identify with Jesus's voluntary surrender of his life. We suffer because Christ suffered. The 40 days are symbolic of Jesus's 40 days in the wilderness, mentioned briefly in Mark and described more fully in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, or the 40 years the Israelites spent preparing to enter the Promised Land.

There's a problem here. If Jesus's death is supposed to substitute for us so we don't have to suffer, trying to take on some of his suffering or identify with his suffering is completely missing the point. And there's no reason at all to use Lent as an opportunity for wallowing in how awful we are, we are mere worms, etc etc. That kind of hair-shirt attitude changes the focus from gratitude for Christ's sacrifice to making it all about me.

So I have lots of mixed feelings about Lent. But I do appreciate the rhythm of the church calendar: the intensity of focus on the spiritual life during Lent or Advent, followed by weeks of "ordinary time." It works much better for me than the year-round intensity of some churches I've attended, which sometimes feels to me like we are trying to whip up a frenzy of religious devotion every week. (not that there's anything wrong with that, it just doesn't suit me as well as the church calendar version, which is why we can all be grateful that there are different denominations for different people.)

Usually for me, Lent is a season of learning. This year I took a continuing ed class on the Jewish origins of Christianity, focusing on St. Paul. It was fascinating. I will tell you more about that another time.

But having said all that: here's something else. This year I gave up sweets for Lent. It has nothing at all to do with identifying with Christ's suffering, and everything to do with me taking advantage of the season to do something I wanted to do anyway. (Who's mis-using Lent now?) I didn't give up sugar, which is in all kinds of things like salad dressing and barbecue sauce and fruit yogurt. Just sweets--cookies, candy, cake, pie, and the like.

The first ten days were easy. So easy I was surprised. I should have done this months ago, I thought. But the past ten days have been a little harder. I built in an escape hatch--I could have a few bites of something if it was a special occasion--and I've taken advantage of that twice. But mostly this has been about me figuring out how it feels to not have sweets in my life. So far, so good.


  1. I think of Lent as a time to renew my awareness of God's presence in my life. Interrupting my normal rhythms by "giving something up" is only useful if that interruption leads to a reminder that God is present in my life. ------------------Some of my disciplines have been less about giving up than about doing. One I'm really proud of is the year I "gave up fear". I realized I spent a lot of time being afraid and I made a conscious effort with each fear-attack to pray and turn the source of fear over to God. It is the doing in response to the fear-attack that was important. .......One year I set my phone alarm to ring 3 times a day, to remind me that God loves me. I'm pretty boring, though, this year. I gave up "romance novels" - I'm finding lots of other ways to waste time, though. :-)

    1. That is a great way of doing it (the interruption is a reminder of God's presence). And I love the idea of giving up fear. John Shore said he is giving up himself this year--"I’m going to give up my ego. My self-identification. My drive to make something of myself, to be someone, to matter." Which I thought was also really interesting. I will be more creative next year in dealing with this. I remember one year my women's group decided that instead of giving something up, we would add something. I guess there are lots of different ways of approaching this.