A few weeks back, a post popped up on my Facebook news feed about the 40 Bags in 40 Days challenge. If you’re not familiar with it, the concept is to give away one bag of items for each of the 40 days in Lent.
The Facebook link was accompanied by a comment that said although the sharer was Christian, she didn’t “do Lent.” However, she thought she might do this decluttering challenge.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard that some Christians don’t observe Lent. Actually, in the grand scheme of things, I get the impression fewer denominations have Lenten traditions than those that don’t. However, I truly believe we can all benefit from observing this time of year.
3 Core Lenten Practices
There are plenty of ways to observe Lent, but for centuries, Christians have done the following three practices:
The modern Church sets the bar for these low – very, very low. There is no recommended minimum for your prayer or almsgiving. Many Catholics around the world pray the Stations of the Cross each week, but there is no requirement to do. Others may add in rosaries, a Bible study or extra personal prayer but again, these are all left to individuals to decide which are worth doing.
It’s a similar situation for almsgiving. Many Catholic churches, at least in the United States, hand out “rice bowls” at the start of Lent. The hope is people will give up their morning cup of coffee or make some other sacrifice and donate the money saved to support missionary work around the world. Again, it’s left to the individual to decide if and how to participate.
As for fasting, the western Catholic Church defines it as eating only one meal during the day. However, you can have two smaller meals as needed to maintain strength. The only catch is those two meals can’t add up to the size of your one main meal. So, for example, you could have some toast for breakfast, half a sandwich for lunch and a regular dinner.
Roman Catholics between the ages of 18-59 are asked to fast only two days of the year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Those who are 14 years old or older should abstain from meat on Fridays as well.
Beyond these three practices, people find all sorts of ways to observe Lent. They may declutter excess possessions, make a pilgrimage, offer acts of kindness or ramp up their personal prayer life. That’s the beautiful thing about Lent. You get decide how best to spend these 40 days to improve yourself and your relationship with God.
6 Reasons to “Do Lent” This Year
Just as there are plenty of ways to “do Lent,” there are also plenty of reasons. Some are profoundly spiritual while others are merely secular. Here are six reasons I think everyone should consider observing Lent this year.
Many of these will resonate with Christians only, but a few are reasons why even non-religious folks might find it worthwhile to engage in a period of self-denial.
1. It follows the example of Christ.
No, giving up chocolate for 40 days isn’t the same as hanging on a cross for 3 hours. However, suffering, even in a small way, unites us to the experience of Christ. Plus, it follows the command of Jesus who says “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
The 40 days of Lent are fashioned after the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert prior to His public ministry. He went through a period of reflection and purification, and that isn’t an experience restricted to God alone. By following His example, we too can find clarity and direction in what our future holds.
2. It reminds us suffering has redemptive value.
No one wants to suffer. Jesus didn’t want to suffer. He begged His Father to allow “this cup to pass.” (Matthew 26:39) However, as we all know, His suffering was necessary. It’s what threw open the doors of heaven for us.
Our suffering won’t throw open the doors of heaven, but it can still have redemptive value. Within the Catholic Church, the concept of “offering it up” is the idea that we can hand over our suffering to God and ask him to do something good with it. Does God need our suffering to do good things? No. But by freely – and even joyfully – suffering during Lent, we are participating in the work of Christ.
It’s an idea that can be traced back to the very start of the Christian church. Consider what Paul wrote: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24)
3. It takes the spotlight off ourselves.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in ourselves. We brood on the injustices we must endure, the unfairness of our life, the things we deserve to have but don’t. I know that’s been a huge spiritual stumbling block for me the past few years. It’s so easy to get hung up on what’s happening in our own little world that we forget to look up and consider the bigger picture.
Lent moves the focus back to the big picture. Prayer lets us contemplate a force bigger than ourselves and reflect on the mysteries of life. Almsgiving can force us to see how others struggle and then maybe lead us to feel more grateful for what we have. By fasting, we can hopefully stop being preoccupied by food and use our time and money for something other than ourselves.
4. It makes Easter sweeter.
There is something very special about the celebration of Easter after you’ve spent 40+ days carrying your Lenten cross. Yes, there is the physical sweetness of biting into that chocolate bunny after weeks without sweets, but there’s also something more.
Think about being on a sports team. You have a big game against your biggest competition. It’s a close fought game, but your team comes out on top. How great is that?! Now, let’s say the other team forfeits for whatever reason. You still win, but it’s not the same, right? For some reason, the victory is sweeter when you put a little effort into it. The same can be said for the victory of the cross.
5. Self-discipline begets self-discipline.
Self-control is like a muscle. The more you use it, the easier it is. This is one of the reasons I think everyone, even the non-religious, can benefit from a period of self-denial. Having the self-discipline to say no to yourself can reap tremendous rewards is all aspects of life. It’s what can keep you on task at work rather than being lectured by your boss about social media usage. It’s what let’s some people get up early so they can read a book, go for a run or cross something else off their list of daily goals. It’s what lets you take charge of the direct of your life rather than being subject to every passing whim.
Giving up snacks for seven Fridays in Lent isn’t all that hard. However, once you do a small penance like that, you may find it’s easier to move on to a bigger one. Maybe then you find you can give up snacks five days a week. And then, maybe you can finally start to stick your diet and lose those last few pounds you’ve been working to shed.
6. There are fringe benefits you’ll love.
This has been alluded to above, but the final reason to consider doing Lent this year is that it might just change your life for the better. Fasting might let you lose some weight. Prayer has been linked to better health and lower stress. If you give up buying lunch so you can donate alms to the poor, you might just continue that habit after Lent. Then you’ll have extra money in your pocket for the things you really want.
However, a caution: I have found observing Lent just for the fringe benefits doesn’t always work. I know I’ve had years where I’ve approached fasting like a diet and didn’t stick with it. That’s because there was no deeper motivation behind the practice. But when I combine fasting, prayer or almsgiving to points one and two above, I find I am more likely to follow through and reap both the spiritual and non-spiritual rewards.
Lent starts today, Ash Wednesday. Even if you’re reading this after that date, it’s never too late to start making this season a more meaningful one.