In the modern world, is the true meaning of Lent lost?
For those of you who don’t know, Lent is a religious observance undertaken by (most) Christian religions, although most people will associate it strongly with Catholics. It lasts for 40 days, starting with Ash Wednesday and ending with Holy Thursday. If you don’t practice you probably won’t have heard of either of these days, but you’ll likely have celebrated the precursor to Lent (if inadvertently) Shrove Tuesday, more commonly known as Pancake Day. Historically, families would use up their sugar and buttermilk to prepare for 40 days of abstinence: eating plain foods and not indulging in snacks or treats.
Of course, Lent has changed significantly over the past 50 years, as has much of the Christian lifestyle. We have, in general, become more lenient and relaxed in our practices, and this has carried over to Lent. Nowadays, rather than complete abstinence, most people choose to give up one thing. For example, my friend has decided to give up tomato ketchup (which might not seem like a major sacrifice, but if you knew him, you’d understand). When I was a child, this was a relatively easy choice. Most years I would give up chocolate, to be rewarded with a massive Easter egg at the end of my 40 days. But now, as a grown woman with a difficult relationship with my faith, is it still possible to partake in Lent in a genuine way that reflects a devotion to my religion, rather than my own vanity?
I mention my own vanity because it’s difficult to find things to give up in an altruistic manner. When I was 8 giving up chocolate was a genuine sacrifice for God, but now I look at it as an opportunity to kick start some weight loss. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more interested in what my religion can do for me, and not what I can do for my religion, and it’s hard to come back from that. Taking things on often leads to the same issues for me. I tend to “take on” healthy eating for Lent or decide to go to the gym a certain number of times a week. These measures always seem like a good idea at the time, but they once again are more self-serving than anything else, and when life inevitably gets in the way of my goals, I’m usually more let down by the failure to meet my fitness goals than by the failure of my devotion.
So, is Lent lost? Are we going to lose another observance of our religion because of modern society? We might have to get creative, but I think there are many ways to bring Lent into a modern Christian’s life. Instead of challenging ourselves to do things that are, at the heart of it, self-serving, why not challenge ourselves to things that give us time to reflect and think? Instead of challenging ourselves to diets or rigorous gym schedules, why not choose to walk to work every day of Lent instead? It still gives us exercise, but it also involves getting up a bit earlier every day and has the added benefit of being good for the environment. Or instead of giving up junk food in an effort to kick start a summer body diet, why not donate the money you would send on snacks to a charity, or donate the snacks themselves to a food bank? There are many ways to serve both yourself and the community - true altruism is an unrealistic goal, but using Lent as a time to renew some of our more lapsed Christian values is certainly not.
This year, especially, the Lent restrictions that we may have set for ourselves have been challenged by the precarious situation our world finds itself in. Those of us who decided to give up drinking or nights out will have suddenly found that the sacrifice is not quite the test of our devotion we thought it would be, while those who have devoted themselves to going to the gym are left with the choice between a fine and eternal damnation. But, as ever, the modern world has provided, with mass being streamed online, the pope sending out recorded messages and reverends, priests, and deacons alike speaking to their congregations via social media instead of the pulpit. And it’s important to remember that we don’t need a church, or a service, to carry out Christian values or to show our devotion to God. Faith is an incredibly personal thing, and Lent should be too. Find your own way to communicate with God and your own way to observe Lent.