I’ve always had a rather awkward relationship with Lent. I remember when I was in high school, the season of Lent had an almost athletic contest vibe to it. My youth group friends and I would usually decide to give up something that would be challenging, and then see how each of us would do. We didn’t exactly intentionally try to trip each other up, but there was definitely an edge of competition about the whole thing.
When I was a senior in high school, I decided to take on something that would be especially challenging for me by giving up chocolate. I knew that it would be a difficult, painful slog to abstain from chocolate (the greatest substance in the world) from Ash Wednesday to Easter. And that I probably wouldn’t make it. It’s hard enough to go a day . . . Yet, I took it on, likely with a few thoughts of the glory I would feel if I did make it through the season.
That year, as it happens every year, my birthday was not far from the start of Lent. On the Sunday closest to my birthday, my parents would typically arrange to have a little birthday celebration during a youth group meeting, since that’s where all of my friends were. The cake that they delivered to the church that year was of course chocolate, as it normally was (my parents never paid much attention to whatever I decided to give up for Lent and they clearly hadn’t that year).
I stared at the cake for a long moment. Although we were only a week or two into Lent, I had been faithful to my Lenten discipline. I had not consumed any chocolate. But, it was my birthday and my birthday cake. Internally, I was torn. My friends, who were also in the midst of their own Lenten challenges knew very well what I was facing. To eat or not to eat? To give in or to maintain the fast?
Then, the Roman Catholic kid who was part of our youth group, by virtue of his girlfriend being a part of our group, chimed in: “Sundays don’t count!” In fact, Sundays are not part of the 40 days of fasting. Leave it to the Catholic in the group to know the details.
I could have my cake and my fast as well.
So, I ate a piece of that cake, but experience left me with an odd feeling that has stayed with me ever since. How did any of what I was doing in that particular Lenten fast, or in any of the others that preceded it, help draw me closer to Christ?
As an adult, I rarely give anything up anymore. But, I feel drawn to do something. In recent years, I’ve tried taking something up instead. This year, I’ve decided to keep a gratitude journal—each day reflecting on something about which I’m grateful. I got the idea a few years ago, from a writing workshop colleague. I remember her talking about her gratitude journal and thinking to myself that keeping such a thing over a period of time would be difficult—perhaps even very difficult—for me. But, the idea stuck itself to a piece of my brain. This year, I’ll give it a try.
The season of Lent is connected to the withdrawal of Jesus into the desert for 40 days. Not only did Jesus fast during that time, but he wrestled with the “devil” or “the tempter.”
Lent ought not only be a time to “give up,” but to endeavor to connect in a new way, and to face those temptations that keep us from Christ. The season should not be akin to a game or athletic contest, nor about how much we can deprive ourselves, as if that’s the only want to please God. Instead, Lent offers an opportunity to reflect and to act, to ponder and to engage, not only with the deprivations that Jesus himself experienced, but with the temptations with which he wrestled—temptations of power, authority and wealth. For those are very important temptations indeed.
Whether we give up or take up, the season of Lent is a holy time to delve into what it means for us to be faithful people—people who wish to walk the road following Jesus. As we know very well, the road is difficult and will bring us places we would rather not go. But, it is also the road that leads to love, hope and new life.
Lent is a special time, a time of invitation to a mysterious holiness. We should not be so focused on our own willpower, or lack thereof, or whether or not we can be better than another in sacrificing, that we miss the beckoning of Christ, whose hand is held out in welcome to us, that we may be drawn closer and to find in that closeness strength and wholeness for the journey of faith and of life.