When I was growing up, I was told two things about Lent: first, you’ve got to give up something that’s bad for you; second, you shouldn’t resume whatever it was you gave up once Lent was over. Since I started university, I have wondered if these things are true.
My ruminations have led me to one conclusion: no. I would argue that that which you give up for Lent does not necessarily have to be ‘bad’ for you, nor does it matter if you continue your Lenten fast after Lent is over.
The philosophy of giving something up for Lent is based on the tradition of Jesus’ forty days and forty nights in the desert, as described in the Gospel of Matthew. While Jesus was in the desert, he neither ate nor drank. Giving something up for Lent is a conscious decision to join in solidarity with Christ in the desert: as Jesus eschewed food and drink, so too must we eschew something ourselves. Yet Jesus did not give up something that was bad for him; indeed, he gave up something that was vital to his human survival, and once he returned from the desert, he did not continue his fast.
Should we, then, give up something that is ‘bad’ for us? I would say that it’s better to give up something we take for granted, something that we would miss if it was no longer there. Such a thing may be ‘bad’ for us, but that is not the first criterium one should look to when deciding what to give up for Lent. Lent is an opportunity to turn our attention away from the things that normally distract us, and return to a contemplation of Christ. In choosing to give up something that is a near constant in our lives, we increase the chance that we think about God more often in our day.
A few years ago, I did give up something bad for me. I gave up chocolate, sweets, and biscuits. My experience with this was much the same as it is every year: at the beginning of Lent, it is massively difficult to keep the fast, but it gets easier as Easter Sunday approaches. Yet in those initial two weeks when I would find myself at a loss of what to have for a snack, I was reminded that the reason I could not have what I would normally have was because it was Lent. This reminder, more than that sweets, chocolate, and biscuits are unhealthy, was important to my spiritual life and growth.
On Easter Sunday that year, I ate an Easter egg for breakfast. It would take me a few more years before I gave up eating chocolates and sweets and biscuits every day, but I did not think that I could never eat them again once that Lent was over. I perhaps should have done, but only because those things are unhealthy. Where that which is given up is not bad for you, there is no reason to believe that Lent should carry on beyond Easter Sunday. Lent is a period of time, as it was for Jesus in the desert, and it is the contemplation of Christ which should be carried forward, not the sacrifice.
Written by Ellen Lesser, an SCM Member studying at Exeter University.