Where did this American Lent come from?

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat, or anyone who has read GetReligion for a year or so, knows that one of the biggest faith-based challenges that journalists face is the demand — year after year — to come up with valid, insightful stories about religious holidays.

It’s impossible to avoid the big days, of course. It’s almost as hard to avoid the other seasons that everyone talks about, even if they do not affect traffic or change the decorations at the local shopping mall.

Take, for example, Lent.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of Lent is that — like Advent and Nativity Lent — some people take the season very seriously and others all but ignore it. Lent is a big deal, of course, in the ancient churches of the East and West, but it also is taken seriously by some believers in Anglican, Lutheran and, yes, even by some Baptists (sort of).

However, when most American readers think of Lent they think of, well, one thing.

Over at “On Faith,” editor Elizabeth Tenety offered this short piece in an attempt to open up a Washington Post discussion of this topic. She begins here:

Christians mark Ash Wednesday February 22, a holy day that launches the liturgical season of Lent, the 40 days of prayer and repentance before Easter Sunday.

Traditionally during Lent, Christians fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstain from eating meat on Fridays, out of reverence for Jesus’ death on Good Friday.

Actually, I would note that the second largest flock in global Christianity — the various Eastern Orthodox churches — do not observe Ash Wednesday. For us, Great Lent begins this coming Sunday night (the calendars of East and West are one week apart this year at Easter and Pascha) with a rite called Forgiveness Vespers, which asks each member of the parish to seek face-to-face forgiveness from every other member of the parish. For an explanation of how that works, please click here. During the entire Lenten season, and Holy Week, the Orthodox are asked to fast from all meat and all dairy products, and many strive to do so.

Meanwhile, all of this raises questions for me: Do the Eastern-Rite Catholic Churches observe Ash Wednesday and/or Forgiveness Vespers? One? Both? Also, are the Lenten fasting traditions of Eastern-Rite Catholics different than those of Catholics in Western Rites? I am sure that one or more GetReligion readers will know some answers.

Meanwhile, back to Tenety:

Many people also give up a vice during Lent as an attempt to remove barriers to God. Others use Lent as a time to buckle down on long-abandoned New Years resolutions, giving up favorite foods or swear words. …

Are you giving something up for Lent? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter with #givingitup.

So here is my journalistic question. While it is true that “many people” give up “one thing” during Lent, this is not a fasting tradition that is — as far as I have been able to discover — found in the teachings of any particular church. In fact, I have been trying to trace this strange notion’s origins for several years. For example:

… Millions of Americans in a variety of churches follow an informal tradition in which they choose to fast from “one thing” — such as chocolate or soft drinks — during Lent. This practice may be linked to a passage in the sixth century monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which states:

“During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God … something above his prescribed measure. Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter.”

However, note that this “add something” concept asks the believer to add one thing, at least, on top of the ordinary Lenten traditions. In other words, the “one thing” is not supposed to take the place of observing traditional Lenten disciplines. It’s a both-and situation.

A few years ago, I wrote an entire Scripps Howard News Service column on this issue, which involved talking to a number of Catholic apologists. Here is a slice of that:

“There are Catholics who don’t practice their faith and they may not be up on what it really means to observe Lent,” said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization for the Catholic Answers (Catholic.com) website. “But active Catholics know there is supposed to be real fasting and abstinence involved in Lent.

“The question is whether they want to do more, to add something extra. That is what the ‘one thing’ was supposed to be about.”

Lenten traditions have evolved through the ages. For centuries, Catholics kept a strict fast in which they ate only one true meal a day, with no meat or fish. Over time, regulations were eased to allow small meals at two other times during the day.

Today, Catholics are supposed to observe a strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent and Good Friday at the end. In most parishes they are urged to avoid meat on Fridays. However, Lenten guidelines have been eased so much in recent decades that even dedicated Catholics may become confused.

And then there is this “one thing” theory, which I have heard voiced by several priests:

It’s also possible … that the “give up one thing” tradition grew out of another understandable practice. Parents and Catholic teachers have long urged small children — who cannot keep a true fast for health reasons — to do what they can during Lent by surrendering something symbolic, such as candy or a favorite television show.

But if grownups stop practicing the true Lenten disciplines, then the “one thing” standard is what remains.

So here is my question for GetReligion readers. If you put together the logical search terms, it’s pretty obvious that this “give up” “one thing” for Lent concept is now what the season means to most journalists, as well as believers.

But did anyone out there see coverage that tried to make any sense out of this Tradition Lite? If you saw really good Lent stories, or really bad ones, please let us know in the comments pages. Go for it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://holyprotection.wordpress.com/ Pete

    Pertaining to your first question, Eastern Rite Catholics do frequently observe Forgiveness Vespers as opposed to Ash Wednesday, usually the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, and Western Rite Orthodox parishes frequently observe Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Pascha.

  • Chris Jones

    Pete beat me to the answer about Eastern-Rite Catholics and Western-Rite Orthodox, but let me add this link to a discussion of Ash Wednesday by a Western-Rite Orthodox priest.

    As Pete said, WR Orthodox observe Ash Wednesday; but Orthodox Ash Wednesday depends on the date of Orthodox Easter (not Western Easter). Orthodox Ash Wednesday is next Wednesday (February 29), not last Wednesday as it was for Catholics and Protestants (because Orthodox Easter is one week later than Western Easter this year).

  • Joe

    In the Ruthenian (i.e., Byzantine Catholic) Church, we start Lent with Forgiveness Vespers, which (since we follow the Gregorian Calendar) took place this past Sunday. We do not observe Ash Wednesday. Our Metropolitan Church prescribes fasting and abstinence on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as on the first full day of Lent and on Holy Saturday. Of course, those are simply the minimal requirements – we are encouraged to go above and beyond, and some do (‘go for the gold,’ as my parish priest would say).

  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    Ms. Tenety may have began with information from the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which includes the following:

    3. It’s a time to fast. With the fasts of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, meatless Fridays, and our personal disciplines interspersed, Lent is the only time many Catholics these days actually fast. And maybe that’s why it gets all the attention. “What are you giving up for Lent? Hotdogs? Beer? Jelly beans?” It’s almost a game for some of us, but fasting is actually a form of penance, which helps us turn away from sin and toward Christ.

    4. It’s a time to work on discipline. The 40 days of Lent are also a good, set time to work on personal discipline in general. Instead of giving something up, it can be doing something positive. “I’m going to exercise more. I’m going to pray more. I’m going to be nicer to my family, friends and coworkers.”

    Of course, this is written for Catholics, not all Christians.

    As for other coverage, Jeffrey Kluger in TIME had a nice piece on the science of denial. It’s rather focused on the rational, but Mr. Kluger adds a nice touch at the end about the relation of faith and reason:

    Distilling religious ritual down to scientific principle can be tricky — not just because it diminishes the more transcendent experiences of believers but because it can seem to justify a sort of cynical dismissiveness in non-believers. But — culture-war absolutism not withstanding — both truths can exist simultaneously. A vigorous workout at your gym may make you feel great — but so can a joyous round of gospel singing, clapping and foot-stomping. Are rising endorphins and lower cortisol levels involved in both? Probably. But is that all that’s going on? Not to the believers it isn’t.

    The best thing about science is that hard, empirical answers are always there if you look hard enough. The best thing about religion is that the very absence of that certainty is what requires — and gives rise to — deep feelings of faith. Lent — and Ramadan and Yom Kippur — teach both.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    In Pittsburgh, where Ash Wednesday is observed with the same fervor, if not the indulgence, that Chicagoans reserve for St. Patrick’s Day, our Ash Wednesday story ran across the top of A-1. I kid you not.
    While I did get a Presbyterian into my story, I had to cut a couple of sentences about who does and doesn’t observe, simply for space reasons. The problem with stories about traditions that are centuries old is that there’s no space for the history.

  • Julia

    Long ago in the 50s, in church history class at Catholic high school, we were told that these fasts were mainly aimed at the nobility and ruling classes who did not labor. People who needed to keep up their strength for heavy labor, which included most women whose daily work was very physical before modern times, were excused from fasting. Everybody abstained from meat on Fridays and other appointed times, but only the rich really fasted. Perhaps giving up something was the “one thing” the peasantry did instead of fasting?

  • Jerry N

    Ukrainian Catholics observe the same liturgical traditions as their Orthodox brethren, so it’s Forgiveness Vespers. While American Ukr. Catholics use the Gregorian Easter, I think in Ukraine proper they may still the Julian calculations for Easter. I seem to recall that the Patriarch once went to D.C. for Easter here but then celebrated Easter yet again a couple weeks later in Kyiv. Not many go full-force on the dietary restrictions in the US, but there are some recovering that.

  • Julia

    Perhaps I should add that the peasantry were lucky to get 3 squares during normal times. Requiring the non-laboring class to not have 3 full meals a day was meant to have them experience a bit what it was like to be a peasant.
    Where did American Lent come from? We didn’t have nobility in this country, and most Catholic immigrants were farmers/peasants/working class whose families had never been required to fast in the old country. So most all Catholics in this country were technically excused. By the time they moved into the middle class with non-laboring jobs and housewives had labor-saving devices, Vatican II came along and nobody bothered with seriously re-instating fasting.
    I don’t have anything to back this up – it just seems logical from the history of Catholics in this country and my experience in a Catholic immigrant community – East St Louis, IL. I don’t remember other Christians doing any fasting at Lent until it started catching on later in the 20th century.
    I get a kick out of the Protestant churches in my town having spaghetti dinners on Friday during Lent instead of fish fry’s. Don’t know what that’s all about.

  • Bill

    As Julia (#6) said, long ago in the 50s, we were taught that giving up something was a small reminder of Christ’s sacrifice and the sacrifice Abraham was willing to make. The good nuns insisted, much to my chagrin, that abstaining from something we liked was far superior than giving up broccoli. Another reason for giving up something was to help us not take for granted our blessings which others did not enjoy. I remember in 4th grade, Sister Julia (no relation to GR’s Julia, I believe) instructing us that Lent required positive actions, as well. She said, “Be nicer to your sisters.” I considered leaving the Church right then, as such requirements made no sense and would be much too hard to put into practice.

    Back then, all Fridays were meatless. Giving up meat every day or three or four days a week was encouraged. So was fasting, but as Julia recalls, those who performed hard physical labor were instructed that their first duty was to keep the machine running. It was not pleasing to God to do harm to one’s health, to endanger others by being weak and not alert, to cheat an employer of a full day’s labor or to put one’s job and the family’s financial well-being at risk. I grew up in a neighborhood of immigrants who did physical labor. I didn’t pay attention to much that grown-ups did, but I remember a lot of discussions of this.

    There were also exceptions from fasting for old people over sixty, which seemed impossibly ancient at the time. Now… well, we change our views over time.

    I recall the bars and social clubs (a redundancy), such as the “Italian-American Unity Club”, “Slovak Catholic Men’s Club” and the “Shamrock Athletic Club” where the sole connection to Athletics was a battered pool table, all had meatless dishes available.

    For some reason, I’m getting a craving for hot cross buns.

  • Jon in the Nati

    So was fasting, but as Julia recalls, those who performed hard physical labor were instructed that their first duty was to keep the machine running. It was not pleasing to God to do harm to one’s health, to endanger others by being weak and not alert, to cheat an employer of a full day’s labor or to put one’s job and the family’s financial well-being at risk.

    It has always been the case, and would seem to go without saying, that the disciplines of fasting (both the current Roman Catholic ones and those of the old form of the Roman Rite) included broad exceptions for people who are sick, pregnant/nursing, traveling, have physically demanding jobs, etc. It never was a hard and fast rule, and in practice a very large number of people either had their fasting requirements lessened or were exempted altogether. Of course, this was generally done after conferring with one’s parish priest, rather than of one’s own accord.

    As an aside, virtually every religious tradition that prescribes fasting for a period of time has similar broad exemptions.

    Vatican II came along and nobody bothered with seriously re-instating fasting.

    The UK Bishops recently reinstated meatless Fridays. Word is the American bishops want to do the same.

  • John Penta

    I wish the bishops good luck in trying.

    I don’t think the flock would bother to listen. (Have they in the UK?)

  • sari

    The UK Bishops recently reinstated meatless Fridays. Word is the American bishops want to do the same.

    Should that happen, I wonder if public schools will modify their lunch menus to reflect the change. Growing up, Friday offerings were limited to grilled cheese or fish sticks.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Do the Eastern-Rite Catholic Churches observe Ash Wednesday

    A thought occurs. The answer to this question is an emphatic ‘no’ for Eastern Catholic Churches following the Byzantine Rite (that is, the liturgical rite followed by all of the Eastern Orthodox bodies in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch). They may have at one point, but the process of liturgical Latinisation has been largely reversed today.

    However, the Byzantine Rite is not the only liturgical rite among the so-called Eastern Catholic churches. There are also the Syriac, Antiochene, Alexandrian, Maronite and Armenian liturgical rites. Of these, only the Maronite Rite includes an imposition of ashes; this occurs on the Monday before the Western Ash Wednesday, and is appropriately referred to as Ash Monday.

  • Matt

    Many people also give up a vice during Lent as an attempt to remove barriers to God.

    My pastor emphasizes instead that fasting is not giving up things because they are bad; rather, it is giving up things that are good. The purposes include to practice the discipline of self-denial, to increase our empathy for those less fortunate, and to increase our thankfulness for the thing when it is restored to us.

    Is it not part of the tradition for the Lenten “giving up” to extend only Monday through Saturday, and to enjoy the thing on Sundays during Lent? That’s what we have done, and it accentuates the point that “vices” are not the kind of thing to give up, because it’s not like you should feel free on Lenten Sundays to go back to (for example) cussing.

    But I’m just a Presbyterian, so what do I know?

  • Matt

    To clarify my question and keep it journalistic: Was the reporter mistaken to mention “giving up a vice”, or am I non-traditional in the way I have been practicing Lent?

  • John M.

    Jon in the Nati,

    Muslims do have some “hardship” exemptions from the Ramadan fast, the most notable being pregnant and nursing women, as well as children. However, the amount of privation endured by Muslims who observe the fast and do hard labor (or, in 21st Century America, two-a-day football practices) is breathtaking. There are no exceptions for them if they are healthy. No one is under any illusions that the same amount of hard work gets done during Ramadan as at other times of year (nor work of any other kind either, if people are honest with you), but people, broadly speaking, keep the fast and do their work.

    Closer to the topic at hand, I grew up outside of Boston in the 80s and 90s, and at that time, the Catholic children pretty much all “gave up something for Lent.” This was usually candy, soda or something of that ilk. The half of us who were non-Catholic (mostly Protestant, but a fair representation of Jews and some Hindus) mostly gave blank stares when asked what we were giving up for Lent. I don’t know where the tradition came from, but it was totally de rigeur for the Catholic kids to do it.


  • Richard Mounts

    Matt I belive that you read that bit about “giving up vices” the way I did. I mean sure, we all ought to give up vices; that’s not the “giving up” for Lent the custom intends. As another poster said earlier we give up a pleasing thing to imitate the suffering of Christ, to even share (in a small way) in that suffering. That way we can be a witness for our faith.

    BTW, I’m impressed that a non-Catholic knows the Sundays “in” Lent aren’t “of” Lent. We think of evey Sunday as a little Easter. Even a lot of Catholics don’t know that. I tell them to count the days from Ash Wednesday ’til they count 40 days. If they skip Sundays they will get to Holy Thursday, the begining of the Triduum which is not part of Lent.

    And I am happy to see some Protestant
    denominations celebrating Ash Wednesdy. I do wonder, though, what the minister says when ashes are imposed.

  • Julia

    BTW Not eating meat is known as “abstaining”.
    “Fasting” has to do with eating less than normal.

    I think Muslims are allowed to drink liquids – so there are some liquids that give some calories.

    Monks in the old days who were expected to fast frequently were very glad to have the old thick beer which gave a lot sustenance; like the beer the Pilgrims had.

    “Giving up vices” – In addition to giving up things you like, there has always been an element to Lent of strengthening discipline in your life – so increasing workouts at the gym or giving up alcohol are not uncommon. Working on particular weakness is also common – like being kinder to your siblings as Bill remarked – I had 4 snotty little brothers so that was a real exercise in discipline for me.

  • sari

    I believe that Muslims refrain from drinking during the fast days of Ramadan. They may eat and drink before sunrise and after sunset, but eating and drinking are both prohibited during the day. Travelers are also exempt, but are, depending on which authority they follow, to make up the fast days at a later date or to feed the needy.

  • http://www.ericcshafer.blogspot.com Eric Shafer

    We did a short photo piece (some text) featuring the priests from Trinity, Wall Street (NY), called “Ashes for the Morning Commute – http://www.odysseynetworks.org/news/2012/02/22/ashes-for-the-morning-commute

  • Jeffery Walters

    During the Lenten Service at my church (Evangelical Lutheran) the ministers uttered the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” as they imposed the ashes.

  • Hector

    Re: And I am happy to see some Protestant
    denominations celebrating Ash Wednesdy. I do wonder, though, what the minister says when ashes are imposed.

    ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. (I’m Episcopalian).

  • Matt

    Same here (Presbyterian Church in America).

  • http://khanya.wordpress.com Steve Hayes

    The South African Anglican Prayerbook used to distinguish between Days of Fasting (marked by abstinence from meat and the quantity of food being lessened), which were Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; and Days of Abstinence (all Fridays in the year with some exceptions, the 40 days of Lent, and a few other days) which were marked by abstinence from meat or some other form of self-denial.

    In their “Liturgy 1975″ Days of Abstinence became “days observed by special acts of devotion and self-denial” without specifying what form the devotions or self-denial were to take.

    I have a theory that abstinence from eggs during Lent led to the custom of having Easter eggs. Nowadays it is more common to abstain from chocolate than from hens eggs, and so Easter eggs are commonly made of chocolate.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    You asked for good articles; I thought this was one of the best for wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday:

    With all the talk of fasting and “giving up” something, it would be good to remember that Lent is to encourage a three-pronged effort to better our spiritual lives, through PRAYER, fasting, and ALMS-GIVING. Without the first and, I daresay, the last, fasting may simply be considered as a good diet.


  • Pete