One thing wrong with that ‘give up one thing for Lent’ thing

I don’t know precisely when it happened, but somewhere during the past decade or two Lent became cool for all kinds of people, including Godbeat reporters.

Lent wasn’t just for Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox (whoever they were) anymore. Lent was for edgy free-church Protestants, bookish evangelicals and all of the mainline Protestants, not just the Episcopalians. You had church leaders handing out Lenten meditation booklets and holding Lenten retreats and maybe even adding a mid-week Lenten service for the truly die-hard worshippers.

Lent was both cool and innovative. In other words, all of this new create-your-own Lent stuff was news. And at the center of it all was one central theme: What are you going to give up for Lent?

This was the big question, of course, the question that linked the new Lent, supposedly, to the old Catholic Lent.

Let’s look at a typical mini-feature earlier this week built on this concept (there were many to choose from), care of The Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The 40-day period of Lent starts today with Ash Wednesday as many Christian denominations give up something to recognize the sacrifices of Jesus Christ.

An analysis of Twitter revealed the most-mentioned Lenten sacrifices this year. Chocolate was number one, followed by alcohol, Twitter, social networking and swearing. Other popular items like forgoing sweets, soda, coffee and fast food also made the top 20.

But not all the Lenten tweets were serious. A high number of people posted they were passing up on Lent or giving up “giving up things.” (Read the top 100 here)

In you’re having trouble thinking of something to give up for Lent, the website WhatToGiveUpForLent.com can help. They suggest not watching television, smoking, using credit cards, gossiping and lying for 40 days.

Of course, the story noted that people can add some kind of (spiritual) discipline during Lent. What about “exercising, volunteering, being on time and staying positive.” Apparently going to confession, traditional forms of fasting, increased prayers, almsgiving, Bible study, etc., etc., didn’t make the list.

The mini-feature ended with a reader participation note: “So do you participate in Lent? What are you giving up or adding?”

So what is missing from this picture?

First of all, the story never mentions the actual spiritual disciplines associated with Lent in the Eastern and Western churches. Click here for some Catholic materials and here for a look at the radically traditional practices followed by many active members of Eastern Orthodox churches.

The story also assumes that the whole “give up one thing for Lent” regime is, well, real and has something to do with Christian tradition. Lots of people, including journalists, assume that this is THE rule for Lent in the Christian tradition.

Simply stated: It isn’t.

Several years ago, I tried to find out where this concept came from and, over and over, I heard people say that they always thought that “this was what Catholics do.” Actually, no. I kind of assumed that this individualistic twist sounded, well, like the Anglican thing to do. Nope. Anglican church historians I called said, in effect, “Don’t blame us.”

Now, I realize that quite a few modern (and postmodern) Catholics are not sure — decades after Vatican II — what part of the ancient Western church traditions Catholicism retained and what parts were trimmed or eliminated during that liturgical earthquake. As it turns out, the canon laws of the church still contain specifics. Here is a chunk or two of that column:

“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.

But what about that “give up one thing for Lent” thing?

The roots of the tradition may date back to the sixth century and the influential monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which added a wrinkle to the usual Lenten guidelines.

“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,” states the Rule. “Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter.”

Note that this was not meant to cancel out the actual disciplines of Lent. This was an EXTRA discipline on top of the traditional ones.

So we still don’t know, for sure, there the omnipresent “one thing” rule came from or how it came to be the American cultural norm — the kind of thing that journalists don’t even need to explain in their stories. The “give up one thing for Lent” thing is just assumed to be accurate.

Akin (along with several other Catholics I interviewed) did have a theory about the rise of this practice among modern Catholics and, thus, the news media):

It’s also possible, he said, 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.

Bingo. And the “give up one thing for Lent” thing is so, so much fun. And it’s so, well, American.

So readers: Did any of you see a story about Lent in a mainstream media outlet that either (a) mentioned the source of the “one thing” rule or (b) actually discussed the real, traditional disciplines of Lent? I predict — because there are excellent Godbeat reporters working out there — some of the latter. But the former? Were there any miracles?

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.

  • Julia B

    Amen!

    Here’s the opinion of a St Louis Lutheran in the Post Dispatch. He doesn’t say where he got the giving up one thing from. He kind of brushes off people who do something positive. http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/civil-religion/travis-scholl/i-don-t-know-what-i-m-giving-up-for/article_0b0b438a-a3f2-11e3-b470-0017a43b2370.html

    Discussion of fish eaten at a restaurant on Fridays in Lent. Nothing about why.
    http://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/dining/st-louisans-eat-more-fish-on-lenten-fridays-but-then/article_1ae323eb-6822-5f14-a710-9d583345f506.html

    Another discussion about eating fish on Fridays in Lent. http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/columns/steals-and-deals/meal-deals-at-area-restaurants-during-lenten-season/article_1fabaf98-da0e-54eb-83f6-e1670df6a1a3.html

    Short piece that kind of references fasting: “During the 40 days of Lent, Fridays are traditionally meatless. But you have to eat, if modestly, and that is why you will find so many fish fries at this time of the year.” http://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/dining/restaurants/off-the-menu/no-meat-no-problem-have-a-lenten-fish-fry/article_651ce288-29a5-5962-9268-51552e8b9a2a.html

    Even radio talk shows discuss who has the best fish fries.

    Have not seen any discussion of the why of giving up something, but meatless recipes and restaurant & fish fry fare is discussed everywhere in my area which has lots of Catholics.

    I’m 69 so have a foot in pre-VII and the other in post-VII. I recall that kids and adults were encouraged to give more attention to our faith during Lent. [in addition to rules for adults]. While in school, for me it was always to try harder to be a good sister to my obnoxious 5 younger siblings. LOL

    These days, our parish choir and lots of others use Gregorian chant and more thoughtful/somber hymns during Lent. Last year our pastor encouraged us to give more thought & effort to become the Christian Jesus would want us to be. He said to forget about giving up things. Instead emphasize good practices that hopefully will continue after Lent is over. Examples: eliminate feeling superior, making cutting remarks, disregarding the feelings of others, shying away from people who are having a hard time.

    The “one thing” is strange to me, but I don’t think baby boomers who were incompletely catechized learned much about their faith past confirmation. I’ll bet most of them have never done the adult rules during Lent.

    BTW Instead of “fish fry’s”; I have seen ads locally for spaghetti & meatball or fried chicken dinners on Fridays in Lent at Protestant churches. What is that about?

    • http://www.churchofgodofchicago.com Debra Adams

      Here’s a point to consider. Your pastor is right in that giving up wrong deeds and attitudes is the proper thing to do. If we follow the Bible, we will do just that. God will give us power like he promised, to live as his children. Living above sin is such a pleasure. I asked Christ into my life and he saved and changed me. Living above sin is real. Lent should be every day and sin should be the “One thing,” to give up. If I’m still cursing and lying or lusting, I may as well eat all the fish and chicken dinners I want. My “religious” sacrifice would not be accepted by the Lord anyway. He doesn’t speak well of hypocrites. Continue to encourage Christians to give up the wrong and stand for what’s right! Thanks for your post.

  • Kyra Bradley

    I am Eastern Orthodox. I am also a convert to the denomination. I spent many years traveling through other religions before I settled into EO 15 years ago. The choice was made because it demands something of me both spiritually and physically. (On a compulsory level…these things are all done on a voluntary basis, as the person is so led.)
    Our fasts are very strict. Whereas most Protestant denominations wouldn’t give up anything for any fast, and possibly, only because it is now chic and hip would give that one thing up for Lent, or the Roman Catholics who fast only on Fridays, we fast every single Wednesday and Friday out of the year except two. We have many short fasts lasting a week and two long fasts. One for the Nativity which begins before Thanksgiving and Great Lent. Our Great Lent, including Meat Fare and Cheese Fare Sundays lasts 63 days. Our fast have us fasting from ALL meat and items that contain meat, ALL dairy and items that contain dairy, ALL wine (and this typically means all alcohol in general other than communion) and All olive oils (and many fast from all types of oils). To add to this, there are only certain days (Wednesday and Friday) that fish with bones is allowed and during Holy Week, no fish and no shell fish is allowed.
    To add to this many Orthodox Christians who are married will not have sex during Lent, And a good number cut back on forms of entertainment, from not watching TV, access to social media, to going to the movies or plays.
    Of course the level to which each family, and even each Christian adheres to the fast is at which each person can obtain success and still work toward the discipline of the body and spirit during this time.
    As a protestant, for many years, I would laugh at the thought of a strict Lent, what could it produce that my prayerfulness and desires for Holiness could not produce? Now, as an EO I know; it produces in me a more correct understanding of God, his sufferings, his will, my ability to tame my desires and my knowledge of what part denial and resistance to “things” is able to strengthen my ability to resist that which is evil.
    Lent is called the “Bright Sadness” because while we feel the pull of the world and the desires for those things which our bodies want, we also feel the lightness and pull toward God.
    Oddly enough, most Eastern Orthodox Christians will tell you, that despite the long and grueling fast, the period of Great Lent leading up to Pascha is our favorite time of year. We eagerly anticipate it, with joy and excitement.
    Not Christmas, not Thanksgiving, not any other Saint day that has some party attached, but rather the amazing joy of the Resurrection service where after weeks of fasting, at midnight we gather to yell at the top of our lungs, “Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!”

    • Can Di

      1 Timothy 4:1-5. That is all.

  • Julia B

    Saturday March 8th – in my hometown paper there is a feature with text and individual photos of kids at the local Catholic high school (kind of like roving reporter) – “What are you doing for Lent?” [In contrast, the teaser at the top of the front page says "What did you give up for Lent?"] Ten kids are featured – I can’t get it on-line to send to you. Answers are a mixture of trying to be a better person and giving up stuff. As in my 1950s, the majority talk about being nicer to family members & many are giving up junk food. LOL
    No “one thing” fixation. I think the answers show the result of discussion at school about what kids can do – not rules. One student mentions something relating to each of the following: prayer, fasting, alms-giving & random good acts. Shockingly, two students say they are going to try to go to Mass every Sunday. I’ll bet their parents are embarrassed.

    Nothing about official rules. The reporter doesn’t get into why students are doing any of this.

  • http://www.churchofgodofchicago.com Debra Adams

    The idea of giving up something in order to understand the sacrifice of Christ is a noble one. Please allow me to add some depth to the discussion of “giving up.” I imagine we understand pretty well that Christ was sacrificed on the cross for the sins of the world. All who receive the Lord Jesus, by asking forgiveness for sin, are grafted into the Family or Kingdom of God – as the saying goes, “Saved by the blood.” Now that we have received adoption of the Lord and seeing that Christ died for sin, shedding his precious blood to cleanse us from our sins, shouldn’t we be willing to give up all willful committed sin to show our appreciation? After all, chocolates didn’t cause our souls to be lost, sin did! Here is a challenging question for us all: What sin is it that we absolutely must commit in order to live? Personally, I find living by the power of God to be far more peaceful and exciting than living like a slave to sin. I don’t have to do wrong to enjoy life. Just thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject. May the love of Christ be with you.

    • Can Di

      But isn’t that what repentance is all about? When you repent, you are making a change in your way of life. Why should you need Lent to do that?? We should be doing this EVERY SINGLE DAY, as Christians! Making life changes that bring us closer to Christ Jesus! Lent is rooted in the Babylonian Mystery Religions and does not have Christian origins, nor is it Biblically sound…1 Timothy 4:1-5. That is enough to make me say NO THANK YOU! But thanks for trying! :)

      • Ray

        Read the early Church fathers. It is all there in addition to clear refutations of paganism and Christian heretics such as yourself.

  • Can Di

    Lent is said to have not entered the church until 998 AD…a tradition rooted in the Babylonian Mystery Religions which aren’t Christian at all! It is for this reason, and 1 Timothy 4:1-5, that as a Protestant Christian, I enjoy all that I have with thanksgiving…as God intended us to do! Beware of those “doctrines of demons”! But to each their own.

     ” Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

    http://www.cuttingedge.org/News/n1239.cfm

    • Ray

      Typical evangelical heretical garbage. Take one verse or section written by Paul in his letters to address a specific situation or heresy and then extrapolate it through false interpretation with no context.

      Tell me, where in the Bible does it say that it is the sole authority? It doesn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact.

      1 Timothy 3: 14-15

      “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”

      Catch that? The Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth since a book can’t interpret itself and canon can’t pick itself from all the heretical books that claim to be inspired by God.

      2 Thessalonians 2:15

      “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”

      What? Word of mouth? That can’t be right! The heretics say only the Bible is ok! (That’s because they’re heretics. They accept sacred scripture but reject sacred tradition.)

      While you’re misquoting scripture, tell me, are you doing it from your incomplete heretical bible? Because you’re missing 7 books from the OT which were canon for Christ Himself. They were pulled out by a heretic that didn’t want those pesky things which contradicted his betrayal of Christ’s Church despite the fact that they had been canon for 1200 years.

      John 15:4
      “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”

      Jesus himself defines clearly what we must do to abide in Him. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.”

      Do you believe in the true presence of Christ in Holy Communion? Or was Christ just making stuff up and speaking symbolically? Because his teaching was so radical that his own disciples left him in John 6:66. They didn’t leave him because he was teaching something easy to understand.

      I can find you tons of places that show that fasting is indeed part of prayer.

      So while you’re assaulting Christ’s Church and his followers, put down Loraine Boettner and go and read Romans 14. Once you have done that, come back, repent for your heresy and assaults on the body of Christ himself, and reconcile with the one true Church of Christ.

      • Ray

        While you’re at it, read the early Church fathers. See all the Catholic “inventions” in their own writings in the 1st and second century. It’s all there: Confession, apostolic succession, Peter and Paul as founders of “the Church”, destruction of heresy, Holy Communion, etc. ALL there in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd century writings.

        Here’s a sample of Irenaeus, writing in the 1st century. Notice he decries all the “churches” who won’t submit to the authority of the one true Church in Rome.

        Chapter III.-A Refutation of the Heretics, from the Fact That, in the Various Churches, a Perpetual Succession of Bishops Was Kept Up.

        1. It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.

        2. Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say, ] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority,(6) that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.

    • Ryan Robertson

      The passage appears to refer to more of a permanent abstinence. That is, those who teach that eating certain foods is wrong are teachers of false doctrine. The Catholic church never said that eating meat is immoral. It’s a temporary fast rather than true abstinence. Some biblical translations, such as the GNT, make this much more clear. Besides, Romans 14 says it is okay to give up certain foods under the condition that we do it in honor of the Lord. There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving up meat on Fridays during Lent, or any time of the year.


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