You started off pretty well.
You gave up Coke, and you read scripture for half an hour on each of the first five days of Lent.
On the sixth day, you had to work late. By the time you got home, it was 8:30. One microwaved dinner later, you fell asleep during the 10 o’clock news. When you awoke past midnight, you clicked off the TV and dragged yourself to bed. While you didn’t read anything, at least you didn’t grab a Coke on the way upstairs.
This is a typical picture of the way Lent goes for many people. They start the season with great ideas about what they’ll do differently. Everything goes fine for a few days, maybe a week. Then they fail to do something and give up even trying.
In Western Christianity, Lent is the season between Ash Wednesday, which fell on February 21 this year, and Easter Sunday, which always falls somewhere between March 22 and April 25. This year, it’s April 8. Although Ash Wednesday actually occurs 46 days before Easter Sunday, Lent is almost always referred to as 40 days long. This is because Western Church doesn’t count Sundays, since fasting on Sunday has always been considered inappropriate.
While Easter celebrates the Resurrection of Christ, Lent is the time of preparation for Holy Week, which recalls the events before and during the crucifixion around A.D. 30. The period symbolizes the 40 days both Moses and Elijah spent in the wilderness. Other Biblical references include Noah in the ark while it rained 40 day and 40 nights and the Jews wandering in the wilderness for 40 years on the way to the Promised Land.
The word Lent actually comes from the Germanic root for Spring. Ever since Christianity became the state religion of Rome, the character of Lent has been a time of fasting and renouncing life’s pleasures. Fasting in ancient times was much more severe than present-day practices. Today, it’s considered a way for Christians to identify with Christ and his sufferings. The Roman Catholic Church requires days of fasting and abstinence for individuals over the age of majority and younger than 59. On days of abstinence, meat and poultry are forbidden. One full meal is allowed, along with two smaller meals to keep up your strength. In this country, the days of fasting in Lent include Ash Wednesday and all Fridays.
Many Anglicans and other Protestants now consider observing Lent a choice rather an obligation. They typically decide to give up favorite foods, with chocolate at the top of the list, or favorite activities such as computer games. Some instead decide to exercise a Lenten discipline such as reading scripture or volunteering for a charity. Roman Catholics may also observe these practices in addition to fasting.
It seems to be the voluntary practices that get us into the most trouble. Sometimes we fall quickly off the wagon because we chose something too severe to complete successfully. Spending some extra time in devotions each day might be workable. However, getting up every two hours at night for six weeks is pretty tough for a typical commuter.
The three traditional practices to be undertaken with renewed vigor in Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. For most of us, the season is synonymous with giving up something. However, according to Debra Farrington, writing in The Lutheran, maybe what we should give us is neglecting God, not chocolate. Here are a few suggestions on how to do this:
Talk to God. A heart-to-heart prayer or simple talk with God can be best achieved on a long walk or in a quiet place you enjoy. Forget about trying to impress God or using carefully rehearsed words. Pretend you’re speaking to a friend.
Cut back on work. Americans actually extended their average work time one week a year in the 1990s. Take a break from working too hard this Lent. Do what’s reasonable, not more. Spend some of the extra time with God. Read a religious book.
Get enough sleep. You can’t meditate very well if you nod off every two minutes. Make this Lent a time of rest.
Stop becoming annoyed. This is the time to shrug your shoulders when someone cuts you off in traffic. Better yet, pray for him.
Practice detachment. Actively avoid accumulating new toys and gadgets. Most of us already have far more than we need.
Take care of yourself. Eat well and get enough exercise. Take some time for leisure and to play. You are nurturing the sacredness of your life.
According to Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk known as a co-founder of the centering prayer movement, Lent should be a kind of Divine therapy. He refers to the season as “a 40-day retreat that the Church invites everybody to go through each year.”
Your 2007 Lent can still be meaningful. It’s not intended to be a race to perfection. If you feel guilty about not meeting a self-imposed standard, consider how you have been neglecting God in your life and ways by which you can stop doing it. It’s not too late. Make Lent a special time, but don’t limit your new practices to only 40 days a year.