It’s the first day of Lent today, that season in the church calendar that leads up to Easter.
Which also means it’s the day we all get to hear what particular vice people are giving up for Lent—usually coffee, chocolate, or social media, it seems.
I don’t want to sound cynical. I really don’t.
There is something admirable about giving up a personal pleasure for a time. It can even be a truly good thing to do. That’s especially so if that pleasure is verging on an addiction that is doing damage to your physical or psychological wellbeing or your relationships. By all means, give it up for a time. Give it up forever, if need be. But sometimes that 40 days is just what’s needed, gaining some perspective on what really matters before taking up the particular pleasure once again.
But I do have some problems with the “giving up for Lent” trend.
Sometimes it seems the things we give up are not the things we should really be giving up. Our Lenten fasts can be a smokescreen of sorts, making us think we’re doing something good and sacrificial while the bigger problems, our real vices, go unexamined.
Vices like greed, lived out in our comfortable lifestyles with more than a few of our favourite things.
Vices like bigotry, manifested in our locker room talk and our coffee shop conversation.
Vices like idolatry, seen in all those ways we look for providers or saviours instead of God.
Vices like pride, evident in our look-what-we’ve-done arrogance and our look-down-on-them derision.
These things and more need to be given up—and not just for 40 days. We need to scour our souls regularly for these deeper vices, these more damaging of sins, and strive to give them up all 365 days a year.
Another thing: sometimes it seems this “giving things up for Lent” is being confused for true religion. We may be tempted to think that by doing this we are better Christians, or truly spiritual, or more religious. (See “pride,” above.)
True religion, as the Epistle of James reminds us, “is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” In other words, true religious piety is not about giving up pleasures for a time. It’s about loving others in the way of Jesus, especially the most vulnerable among us, and sticking to Jesus’ narrow way of love no matter what the world around us says or thinks.
I’m not alone, of course, in thinking thoughts like this about “giving up things for Lent.” These are in fact the criticisms of Lent-keepers that many of my Anabaptist forebears have spoken.
However, I still observe the church calendar, including the season of Lent, and I encourage others to do the same—and my reason is thoroughly Anabaptist.
It’s because observing the seasons of the church year can help us to focus our attention on Jesus. The church calendar is, in its essence, an annual re-telling of the story of Jesus.
Here’s how I’ve described this previously:
Every December in Advent we start by entering into ancient Israel’s deep longing for God to act, yearning for God’s kingdom to come. At Christmas, at the world’s darkest hour, we hear the angels and shepherds and Mary and Simeon and more: God has acted, the Messiah has come, Jesus is born!
At Epiphany we watch as Jesus is revealed to the world at his birth and baptism (eastern and western churches differ on this, but in the west these bump together in the first couple weeks of January). Over the next several weeks, through winter’s chill, the days get longer and the light shines brighter as we see Jesus’ life and hear his teachings.
Then Lent arrives in February or March, just as winter’s death attempts its final assault, and we meditate on Jesus’ road to the cross, through Palm Sunday’s celebration of the humble Messiah, to Maundy Thursday’s participation in the Last Supper, to Good Friday’s holy grief and Holy Saturday’s dark vigil. But life conquers death, spring casts off winter’s cloak, and Easter Sunday dawns with joyful celebration: Jesus is risen!
Forty days later, Ascension Day: Jesus returns to the Father. Ten days later, Pentecost: the Spirit of Jesus comes among us as spring hits its stride, and the Church steps out in following Jesus to the ends of the earth. And then we’re in ordinary time, nearly lulled to sleep through summer’s warmth and autumn’s bounty, prodding ourselves awake to watch and wait for the return of Jesus and the fullness of God’s kingdom at Christ the King Sunday, at the end of November.
And then it begins again.
This is very much a northern-hemisphere-centric understanding, of course. You might say it’s a particularly Canadian Anabaptist way of thinking about things, with our peculiar Canadian love-hate relationship to winter. But forget the connection with the northern seasons—the simple mapping of the story of Jesus onto a recurring annual cycle provides a way of keeping Jesus and his life and teachings in the forefront of our consciousness.
Here’s how I put it in that earlier post:
Every year, year after year, our very sense of time is shaped around the birth and baptism, life and teachings, suffering and death, resurrection and return of Christ. In every season of the year, Sunday after resurrection Sunday, the story of Jesus is superimposed upon us, and we’re invited, with a healthy dose of holy imagination, to enter into the story of Jesus—and for it to enter us.
And that’s why this Anabaptist is not giving up Lent for Lent—because I need to be reminded regularly of the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way of self-giving love for the flourishing of all.