It seems to me that there is an unusual amount of muddle out there about Lent this year, especially the question of giving things up. So here’s a quick Q and A.
What’s the main point of Lent?
Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. Without Easter, Lent makes no sense.
Is it necessary to give up chocolate, tea or alcohol for Lent?
No. In fact there aren’t any rules. It’s up to you what you do in Lent.
Then why do people give things up for Lent?
There are lots reasons. Habit. Conformity. Fun (well, maybe not fun). Then there’s the thought that giving-up may actually be good for your health and well-being.
What’s the best reason for giving something up?
It’s to take on a kind of ‘fasting’ that you actually feel, and which reminds you that you are person who is alive but maybe not quite aligned at the level of desire, need and want.
Really! I thought it was that Christians have got a nasty negative streak and believe that suffering, anxiety and guilt are good for you?
No. The point is that recognising the truth about the human condition in general, and yourself in particular, is good for you. Christianity teaches that the truth sets you free. So this is truth not for the sake of constraint, still less for the sake of misery, but truth – even if uncomfortable – for the sake of freedom.
What about giving up ‘abstract things’ – indeed you yourself have suggested giving up ‘busyness’ and ‘grumbling’?
I think that there is a point in using Lent as a time to focus on some aspect of your life that is not so good. But this isn’t like giving up something like chocolate. Giving up busyness or grumbling is not a form of fasting from something that is enjoyable and good. Rather it is an attempt to change your ways at a practical level.
But what if being busy is a good or necessary part of my life?
Don’t give it up then! The point of my suggestion is that for some people there is an unnecessary, chronic and somewhat performed ‘busyness’ that can get in the way of more important things. Other people may just have a lot to do to get by. But if you are borderline do have a look at http://www.notbusy.co.uk
Wouldn’t it better to do something positive rather than focus on the negatives?
Well it might be. And one traditional Lenten practice is to give more money away. But I would be wary of taking on more to do unless you are well clear of the ‘busy-zone’.
What’s the obsession with ‘Lent books’?
I know it’s a bit much! It’s as if Jesus went out into the wilderness to read a pile of paperbacks. Reading a specific book in Lent probably goes back to the reading over otherwise silent meals that happens in monasteries. It’s not essential. But it’s another thread in the rope of Lent – not the main thing.
Okay then, what is the main thing?
The main thing is that there are several things, several threads in the rope. A bit of fasting, a bit of trying to improve your life, a bit of reflecting on your weaknesses, a bit of recognising that you sometimes fall short of the mark and that sometimes you are aiming at the wrong target because your desires are muddled, a bit more time spent in silent prayer or meditation, perhaps a bit more compassionate concern for others, a bit of being neighbourly and constructive.
Is that the lot?
No, the potential is endless. But there is one point I could have made better. The main thing really is Easter. And that will come no matter what you do in Lent. It’s all a question of whether and how you want to prepare for it.