One thing about Lent

Faithful fans of ESPN’s “Mike & Mike in the Morning” know that former NFL lineman Mike Golic takes great pleasure in skewering his urbane shrimp of a partner, Mike Greenberg.

But in recent weeks, the sarcastic jabs by the University of Notre Dame graduate began drawing an ominous canned response from the producers — a doomsday choir chanting “Golic’s going to hell.”

You see, Golic vowed to make a big sacrifice this year for Lent, the 40-day penitential season that precedes Easter. When he was in Catholic school, he told listeners, he was taught to give up one thing during Lent. This time around, Golic elected — rather than donuts or another great pleasure — to give up making fun of “Greeny.”

When most people think of Lent, this “giving up one thing” concept is the one thing that comes to mind, even for many of America’s 62 million Catholics. Now, many Protestants have adopted the same practice. This is, however, a modern innovation that has little or nothing to do with ancient Lenten traditions, in the West or the East.

“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. Akin tries to cover the basics online in what he calls his “Annual Lent Fight” roundup.

It’s impossible to know how or when the idea of “giving up one thing” came to dominate the Lenten season, he said. 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.”

The key, Akin explained, is that this was supposed to be an extra sacrifice. The Rule even tells the monks to seek the approval of their spiritual fathers before taking on an extra discipline, so as not to be tempted by pride.

“It’s understandable that when you have a season in which you’re supposed to do something — like penance — there will always be people who want to do more. They will want to observe both the letter and the spirit of the law,” said Akin. “At the same time, you’re going to have people who want to go in the opposite direction. They will want to find a way to do the bare minimum, to set the bar as low as possible.”

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.

“You can have a good example set at home and then undermined at school or it can happen the other way around,” said Akin. “Our children need to see the faith lived out at home and the school and in the parish. You need consistency.”

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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.


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