How to Observe Lent

Or Why Catholics Get Crazy as Easter Approaches and Other Theological Questions

Terryl Rushing

Article by Terryl Rushing Featured Author


As I’m writing this, revelers around the world are preparing for Mardi Gras, that annual late-winter bacchanalia where spirits (and shirts) are lifted in a sure harbinger of spring. Well, maybe St. Patrick’s Day is more of a harbinger of spring; Mardi Gras is actually a prelude to Lent — the forty-day penitential period preceding Easter. As you’re reading this, we’ve no doubt already observed Ash Wednesday, and I hope you didn’t tell a co-worker that she had a smudge on her forehead. Now we’re in Lent, and many of us have deprived ourselves of some food, drink, or habit that we love.

Lent is observed by several Christian churches, and by some individuals not connected to any established faith. For Catholics and some other Christian religions, the common practice is for fasting during certain days in Lent, usually Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and giving up something for the entire period. Fasting is not an unusual religious practice — Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, and Jews fast on some high holidays, particularly Yom Kippur. Fasting is important to the Hindu religion, although the day and the method may vary from region to region, and Buddhists routinely fast. Many non-religious people also practice fasting, as an exercise in discipline and self control.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to observe Lent, but giving up something is meant to help cultivate the inner life and make us more spiritually aware. For those of us who choose to observe Lent in that way, there’s the weighty decision of what should I give up? (Lent may have already begun, but it’s never too late to get started.) The Internet is, of course, rife with suggestions. I even found a Twitter Lent Tracker, which has catalogued, in rank order, items given up for Lent since 2009. Typically near the top of the list are alcohol, chocolate, computer use in general and social networking, in particular. We can’t rely too much on 2018 data, however, because Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day coincided, unless there were a lot of alcohol-free dinners with no desserts. (Easter and April Fool’s Day also coincided, but we’re not going there.) Swearing seems to come and go out of the top five, maybe dependent on the economy and politics of the Lenten season. I’m afraid that, if I gave up swearing, the dogs would forget who they are, and my always simmering road rage (or, as I prefer to call it, road impatience) would just get worse.

Some of the items people reported relinquishing on the Twitter list appear to be steps in the right direction, such as negativity, junk food, smoking and guns. Wait, guns? Others are not so positive, like giving up on college and life. Apparently, many people refuse to give up sarcasm. Giving up sex ranks pretty high on the list; one would hope that wasn’t a unilateral choice. Like giving up coffee, it could affect more people than yourself. Virginity was much, much further down on the list, as were “mass shootings.” What???

For the hair shirt crowd, here are some excessively painful and/or unusual ideas. Put a pebble or a popcorn kernel in your shoe every morning. Park at the very back of the parking lot, no matter how many closer spots are open. Pray the Our Father, doing an ab crunch for every word. Leave post-it notes with positive messages wherever you go. Give away one piece of clothing that you really, really like every day. And perhaps the most painful — give up stretchy pants and elastic waistbands. (Giving up chocolate and booze might make this easier.)

On the funnier side — give up napkins; that’s what sleeves are for (and it might make it easier to give up those clothes). Give up the phone. No, not yours, silly, the one at the office. Give up your New Year’s resolutions. Officially. You weren’t keeping them, anyway. A male friend who joined the church as an adult related this experience with Lent: “When I was first Catholic, I gave up sex, but my girlfriend at the time was a crazy b*#^% by the time Easter got here. A couple of years ago, I gave up alcohol, and I was a crazy b*#^% by the time Easter got here.

More practical suggestions are to write a letter every night. Call instead of texting. Give up the snooze button, although for me, that has an equal chance of causing me to get up right away or to sleep for another hour or two. Give up makeup (see giving up sex, above). Give up blow-drying your hair. And then, as a concomitant act, give up mirrors.

Motivation is important here; this should be a meaningful sacrifice, and for the right reason. Lent is not meant to be a short-term, glorified weight-loss program or a budget fix. Six weeks of good behavior doesn’t earn you a year of unfettered gluttony and laziness. Be clear about what you’re giving up and be consistent. Giving up TV for Lent also includes programs recorded before Ash Wednesday.

The question arises, why is Lent referred to alternately as six-weeks or forty days? Sundays don’t count; they are celebrations of the Resurrection. As such, you are free to discontinue your sacrifice for those twenty-four hours. Laissez le bon temps rouler!