21 February 2007

Lent and the Spirit of Giving (Up)

I suppose - scratch that - I know I've always scoffed at the idea of giving something up for Lent.

It's a combination of things really - organized religion, the connection to Mardi Gras (and also the connection to drinking and shedding clothing), and then people who just do it to do it.

The way my mother puts it - Mardi Gras is about doughnuts. Doughnuts and butter. I never see doughnuts and butter. Instead, I see beer and tits. I see beer and tits all the time - with Mardi Gras though, we get the added bonus of cheap plastic beads. Woo. So, to kick off the Lenten season, a Tuesday looks like most of my Saturdays...hmmm...

Having been raised a strange combination of Lutheran and Catholic, I could choose to either participate in the Lent of the Catholic variety or the Lutheran. I chose the latter.

A priest once suggested that in lieu of giving up something for Lent, in a day and age where we all take the ease of procurement of many items for granted, that we ought to consider spending the period of lent reflecting on own personal sense of religion - and learning about Christ, other Christian denominations and other religions as well. (In hind sight, I suppose he was pretty forward thinking.) Many years, I have done this - hence the The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Catholicism and Judaism for Dummies on my bookshelf.

With this, and my optional Catholicism, I never gave anything up and I didn't see the sense in it. In fact, when people choose to give things up for reasons other than religious ones, it always irritated me.

One of my good friends has been giving up chocolate for Lent for YEARS. For some reason, it really got under my skin. Another good friend gives up beer (but not all alcohol) for Lent. Another friend, a meat eater, likes to brag about giving up steak for Lent. It's not the contrast between people giving things up for personal reasons or religious reasons that gets to me. It's the conflict with this:

Lent Meditation: You don't need to boast about your good deeds. They should speak for themselves.

Ok, ok. So is giving up alcohol or chocolate or cookies or meat really a good deed? No. But it is a test of one's will and a means of encouraging our spirits to endure. It seems to me that often people who are giving something up like to talk about it - and make it widely known that they are giving something up. However, if we're truly trying to test ourselves and make ourselves stronger, do we need to point out, talk about, gripe about and make a big deal of our sacrifices.

Instead of giving up cookies, trying eating a meal of rice or something incredibly simple, like that of meals in a Third World country. Save the money that would normally have been spent on the meal, and donate it to a charity. Instead of giving up some alcohols some of the time, give up all alcohol and read a book about recovering from alcoholism. Instead of not eating chocolate, give up all sweets and volunteer at a soup kitchen.

So, we have 3 different Christian stories - Jesus, Moses and Elijah, Noah and Jonah. Take your pick. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert. Moses and Elijah both fasted in the wilderness for 40 days. The story of the Noah and the great flood took place over 40 days. And Jonah and his avoidance of Nineveh and the whale - again 40 days. Repetition is good.

So, like Jesus and Elijah, we give up something of significance over Lent. The meaning of this something's absesnce holds significant value to us.

I guess the more that I think about it, the more that I understand. If I choose to give something up, or try to give something up, I don't think I'll be particularly public about it. But if I do give up something, I'm sure I'll be better off without it.

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