Making sense of Lent.
By Phillip Ratliff
I’m up in the balmy, wee hours of Fat Tuesday, king cake on order, fridge stocked with the makings of chicken and sausage gumbo, thinking about the period of self denial to follow this evening’s feast.
Precisely what form that self denial will take, I’m not yet sure and I wouldn’t confess, even if I were. I am sure and will confess that I will attempt to avoid the cliches of Lent, which is to say, I’ll avoid avoiding desserts and alcohol, beer and donuts, and the perennial target, chocolate. I also admit that this year I won’t consider those habits and personality faults I should give up every day—swearing, anger, Facebook. Why wait until Lent to give those up?
Besides giving up what I’m better off without, Lent requires one give up things that are perfectly good, as well—about a meal’s worth of grub on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, meat on all other Fridays. To those who don’t observe, giving up perfectly good food during Lent might seem ridiculous. The non-observing Christian might ask, skeptically, “Does self-denial make God love you more?” The skeptic might ask, sneeringly, “Isn’t abstaining during Lent a form of groveling before some capricious deity?”
Well, no. Some background: Lent dates back to the 300s but Christian ascetic practice piggybacked those of Judaism and were present in the earliest days of the Church. John the Baptist was possibly a member of a Jewish sect, the Essenes, known for their fasting. Jesus himself fasted, famously, for 40 days and nights (Lent gets its weird number of days, 46, because it’s a 40-day fast plus six Sundays).
Observing Lent is a bit like plugging back in a lamp cord you’ve tripped over. Lent helps the observer see beyond the physical world. In this context, food is good, but it’s not ultimate good. There are limits to what it can accomplish in any one person’s life. Food serves my body, but my body fulfills higher purposes, as a sign, a door, a temple, an altar.
For others, there are practical benefits. Whether they’re eating out or going to coffee shops less, or cutting back on a particular pastime, Lent observers usually find themselves with a few extra dollars in their pockets or purses. Those dollars can now go where they should—feeding, clothing, and housing those who need food, clothes, or housing. In my tradition, Roman Catholicism, we give this the quaintly medieval-sounding name of almsgiving.
Multiply that effect out, and almsgiving can make a powerful impact. Here’s an illustration, taken from a topic dear to my heart: A 2014 USDA study estimates that 31 percent of food goes uneaten in America. In retail terms, that’s about $162 billion of food left uneaten, or over 1200 calories per American citizen every day. What if that wasted food went to those who have none?
Paying attention to food waste is some way to reevaluate needs and re-calibrate budgets. Over the course of Lent, the belt-tightening should become not just a habit of behavior but a habit of mind. My mind needs better habits, just as surely as my body needs less chocolate. •