Why Do We Give Up Something for Lent?

Deborah Arca, director of All Things Patheos, from my perspective, asked the question, Why does Lent typically involve giving something up?

My trusty Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church tells me that Lent was originally a time of fasting. “During the early centuries the observance of the fast was very strict. Only one meal a day, taken towards evening, was allowed, and flesh-meat and fish, and in most places also eggs and lacticinia [I figure that’s milk products], were absolutely forbidden.”

Restrictions were “considerably relaxed” from the ninth century (800s) onwards in the Western church” (that’s most of us). People could eat as early as 3 in the afternoon. By the 1400s, people could eat their meal at noon.

Big whoop! So they could eat earlier. They could still eat only one meal—though from the thirteenth century onwards, a light meal was allowed at night.

Thank God, all that’s changed! In fact, a Roman Catholic document, the Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini (that’s On Penitence), from 1966, said fasting is required only on the first day of Lent and Good Friday. Two days without food I can tolerate.

Lent’s sure not what it used to be. But it’s still a tough time. Whether we’re giving up chocolate or our favorite TV program (could I live without “The Good Wife?”), many of us try to give up something that makes us a wee bit less comfortable. I remember how annoying (no, it really wasn’t a spiritual discipline, much as I’d like to say it was) it was one year to make my son’s chocolate milk when I had given up chocolate for Lent. I salivated. Yep. Just like Pavlov’s dogs, I’d salivate over the Hershey’s chocolate I was stirring into Jeremy’s chocolate milk.

Another year our high school daughter, who didn’t consider herself one of the most pious kids around, decided to give up one piece of clothing for every day of Lent. She did. 40 pieces of cotton, twill, and flannel. We laughed this weekend when she said, “I couldn’t do that now. I haven’t got 40 pieces of clothing to give away!” (She’s gainfully employed now, so she buys her own clothes—precious few of them on her starting salary.)

Still another year, my wife Priscilla gave up sugar. Imagine tea without sugar. I can’t. As far as I’m concerned, the whole point of a great cup of tea is the dollop—a teaspoon mountain—of grainy white sugar.

I recall explaining fasting to Chloe once. I talked about the discipline, of course, but also freeing up time to pray when you’d normally be eating. That made sense. Then I added that not having something we’re used to reminds us of those who lack what we take for granted.

So why give up something—anything we’re used to—during the 40 days of Lent?

To remind us of others who lack what we take for granted.

To call us, for a moment or the twinkling of an eye, to a life of even slighter simplicity.

To prompt us to pray.

That should be reason enough for joining the company of saints over the centuries. Lent can prompt a modest but significant shift in our priorities, even if, unlike those dedicated old souls of centuries past, we tuck into a nice omelette or tall glass of chocolate lacticinium.

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