Ash Wednesday invariably pulls me back to that childhood meme of “giving _____ up for Lent,” which blank was almost invariably filled by a type of candy or other small treat. Why God should care whether or not I’m eating Baby Ruth bars during the next 40 days is something that was never explained, or explained well. The best we ever got fell along the lines of, “Jesus suffered and died for you on the cross. The least you can do is give up Baby Ruths till Easter.” When, of course, a sugar coma would ensue, courtesy of the Easter Bunny.
In my college days, the Campus Ministry folks proffered an interesting notion: Take something on for Lent, rather than give something up. I learned that this was rooted in Catholic social-justice theology and was a positive, progressive outcome of Second Vatican Council reforms. (Which, even then, forces were working to undo, but that’s another story for another day.) That was, to me, a more meaningful attitude. A common suggestion on campus was to forgo (or reduce) lunch, and donate the money that would otherwise have been spent to hunger-fighting causes. That had the satisfying effect of both fulfilling the “giving up” tradition and giving one the sense that by so doing he was actually doing something positive for the good of someone else. Jesus, after all, exhorted his followers to feed the hungry; he did not insist they forswear M&Ms for six weeks.
Over the decades since then, I sometimes take on something for Lent (in more recent years, a spiritual activity or exercise); I sometimes give up something (one falls back on these dietary angles at such times); and, more often, I do not much of anything at all.
Except, apparently, to give some thought to the matter.
Some years ago, working in the office of a religious organization, I had determined to give up between-meal eating for the duration. Certainly I did not announce that practice, nor in any way call attention to it. But when a co-worker inquired on my passing on a plate of cookies that was passed around at coffee break, I ’fessed up. It was Lent, after all – confessing seemed de rigueur.
And I was mocked.
My co-worker, a pastor, smugly informed me that Jesus’ dying on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice, and that my activity was therefore meaningless. (One notes how frequently “religious” people’s knee-jerk response to other people’s ideas or beliefs is ridicule. One wonders about the solidity of a “believer” who must armor him- or herself with snarkiness. Further, one wonders how many converts are won by sarcasm. Again, questions for another day.) I pointed out that my “sacrifice” was nothing at all, rather the practice was designed to focus my attention on what, after all, I’m told the season is all about, viz., the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus…the same reason, I assume, that my co-worker was given to wear a rather noticeable cross at all times.
The response, of course, was more snark, at which I dropped it. “Never try to teach a pig to sing,” my father often advised me. “It wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.”
At about that same time, a time in which I still practiced Catholicism, I was at mass on the first Sunday in Lent, during which, to my disgust, the celebrant decided it would be a good idea to mock those who choose to “take on” during Lent, rather than “give up” something – food, of course. “And if you’re like me,” he pronounced, patting his well-rounded abdomen, “you could stand to lose a couple of pounds.” No argument…but a good job of missing the point. To “give up” in order to derive a benefit – I’m going to give up chocolates for Lent so I’ll look good in my new duds on Easter Sunday – trashes any notion of sacrifice (which is the point the priest thought he was making: you have to give something up, because Lent is about sacrifice); trashes any notion of focusing the attention on that which Lent purports to commemorate; and pretty much makes a mockery of the season entirely. I came away thinking that, for that gentleman, it was merely the practice for its own sake, without any kind of spiritual or theological underpinning. And what, then, is the point?
These days, as indicated, I am less inclined to “do” anything for Lent, except for some introspection and other thought exercises. But I do value the season (agnostic though I may be) for the reasons touched on above – the opportunity to place oneself in the context of the mythos and speculate on the meaning of it, to focus on something beyond oneself, even to – yes – take on something that might prove to be of benefit to someone else, however small that benefit may be.
And I think we can do without the snarkiness and mockery. That’s always been one of the less-endearing traits of “religious” people.