Giving up something for Lent: New Year’s resolutions with a side of guilt

Everything in moderation, including moderation. (Attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Oscar Wilde)

Here comes Lent, my friends: that annual festival of culpability and self-denial which begins with Ash Wednesday on February 10. Please do not get me wrong. I am a die-hard liturgical Christian who believes the patterns of the church year are a brilliant and blessed way to practice living the sacred story. The changing of seasonal colors, the varying emphasis on joy or introspection or “ordinary time”…I find this cycle a helpful way to keep my spiritual vision fresh.

My beef is what Lent has become over the years. Call it: “The War on Lent.” Society has gotten more and more confused about its religious identity, yet even people who are “spiritual but not religious” feel the need to Give Something Up.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, fasting in preparation for Easter began as early as the first three centuries after the life of Jesus, and was first designated as “forty days” in the canons of Nicaea (325 CE, which also gave us the eponymous creed.) Rather than sweets, or smoking, or alcohol, in the early days what one “gave up” was food. In its most back-to-the-early-church form, the Lenten fast was very strict: one meal per day; meat, fish and eggs were absolutely forbidden. It will not surprise you that there were many, many, many different and sometimes conflicting rules about which days of the week were exempt, what times of the day were appropriate for breaking the fast, and from which items one was to abstain.

The rules have changed, but the idea remains the same. In the several decades since I was a young Episcopalian, a more evolved piety has sought to “take something on” for Lent, such as an extra service or kindness or discipline. In these latter days of social media, it has become popular among my friends to give up Facebook for Lent.

Here’s the thing. In no way do I pooh-pooh any act of piety: I have too much respect for faithfulness and tradition.(I am, in fact, both spiritual AND religious.) I love any effort to remove whatever impediments there might be between us and God. But guess what: the greatest impediment to our relationship with God is that we are human beings.

God speaks to each of our hearts and invites each of us to her or his own practice. This automatic impulse to give something up for a prescribed time—even to take something on— falls into a kind of vaguely religious self-helpism. Just as crash diets are no substitution for a healthy lifestyle, giving up chocolate is not going to automatically bring you into better alignment with the heart of God. [I remember a Roman Catholic friend in college whose Lenten discipline was to “give up getting drunk.” I love that.]

Maybe (okay, probably!) there are practices and habits and needed self-improvements. But it’s always something. Just as on December 26 the culture starts haranguing you about your New Year’s resolutions, in about a month your magazines and TV commercials will start haranguing you about how you look in a swimsuit. The world tells you that you are not enough. Not tall enough, not skinny enough, not fat-free enough, not sodium-free enough, not Paleo enough. OK: there may be something that would improve your health or happiness or how your clothes fit. Start with “I am enough” and take it from there, on beyond Easter.

The saying “nothing in excess” was inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi. That’s a pretty good place to start, and is consistent with a God who said “I have said these things to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will face persecution, but take courage: I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33)