Theology

why I'm not observing Lent

Ash-Wednesday

I worked as a teller for a short while after I graduated from PCC, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had moved away from the rural Southern town I’d grown up in and was living in an unfamiliar area where most of the people I met– if they were religious– usually identified as Catholic. It was strange for me, since I was used to everyone being Baptist even if they weren’t fundamentalists.

My first Ash Wednesday there was especially confusing. I was working the drive-through that day and after the twenty-fifth person came through with a gray smudge on their forehead, I finally asked someone what it was.

She stared at me, her mouth open. “I thought you said you were a Christian?”

I had no idea what that had to do with foreheads and gray smudges. I frowned. “I am.”

She laughed. “It’s Ash Wednesday, Sam.”

More blank staring, this time from my end. “What’s ‘Ash Wednesday’?”

She just shook her head and walked back to her office, laughing. When I got home from work that day and finally googled it, I realized that it was the first day of Lent. The interesting thing to me was that I’d been observing Lent for five years at that point and had somehow missed that Lent began on Ash Wednesday. I also found it amusing that Mardi Gras was also connected to Lent, which I had not known.

I started observing Lent my first year at PCC with a group of friends– together we made a pact to give up soda. I drank nothing but water those forty days, and when I noticed that I felt better without the stuff I gave it up almost totally– now I drink nothing but root beer and ginger ale on rare occasions. For the four and a half years I spent in college, I drank nothing but water.

The next year it was sugar– and that was much harder. No deserts, no sweeteners, no sugary cereals . . . after the first week, we agreed that we wouldn’t keep it through Sunday just so that we could have one gigantic slice of chocolate-chip-encrusted cake to get us through the week.

After that it was caffeine, then carbs, and that year I was working at the bank it was coffee. I had started thinking of Lent as my once-a-year diet, or purge, or I guess the popular term now would be “cleanse.” But that year, I finally looked into what Lent actually was and realized that what I had been doing was . . . just a little ridiculous. I didn’t understand the deep meaning, the tradition, the calling of Lent.

The only context I had to observe Lent was inside my fundamentalist box, and the way I was observing this ancient practice clicked right in alongside the self-flagellation of fundamentalism. I observed Lent because I believed that aestheticism was the point of Lent and Christianity. I didn’t yet love the Incarnation and the imago dei, I hadn’t yet learned to appreciate an embodied faith and the gift of life and beauty.

The next year for Lent, with my perspective starting the monumental shift that continues through today, and after several conversations with people from rich Protestant and Catholic traditions, I decided to give up facebook. I wanted to spend the scattered minutes throughout my day experiencing those moments instead of numbing or distracting  myself with a news feed. The next year I gave up the internet totally. Last year, it was reading the comment section.

But this year . . . this year I’m not observing Lent.

Lent has become an important part of my faith practice, especially as I have grown to appreciate its history and what its meant to me over the years. I’ve come to look forward to these forty days. I’ll probably be back to observing Lent next year, and my goal is to follow a more traditional path, especially since I’m living in a Catholic area again. I thought about it this year, but, ultimately I realized that I need to examine why. There are still too many fundamentalist strings tied to me, too many fundamentalist shadows in my life I need to shine a light on, too many times when crawling back inside a fundamentalist cage is my automatic response.

I need to not observe Lent this year, partly just to prove that I can. The guilt is still to close, the shame still too heavy. Fear has been pushed deep into my soul– fear of failing, fear of not being enough. Not holy enough. Not spiritual enough. Not righteous enough. Not godly enough.

Lent has become a way for me to affirm that I am “enough.” Lent has become a way for me to avoid guilt, and shame, and fear. Lent has become a litmus test– If I can just get to the end of these forty days and feel that I’ve “accomplished” being a Christian in some way, then maybe some of the fear in my soul will dissipate.

That is how the fundamentalist inside of me uses Lent, and I want to banish that part of me. I want to wake up on Easter morning and simply be enough for no other reason than I am. I don’t need to “give something up,” to push myself into making a commitment to self-sacrifice just to feel like I’m worthy of being a Christian. I don’t have to prove anything– not to myself, not to God.

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  • kategladstone

    Re “aestheticism” — I’m not a Christian, but from what I know of Lent, if thought it was about _asceticism_. They differ.

    • I was going to note that as well.

  • kategladstone

    I meant “I thought” (not “if thought”).

  • I had no idea what that had to do with foreheads and gray smudges.

    I had the same puzzlement. I think it is a catholic, and perhaps episcopal practice. It doesn’t seem to be common among evangelicals.

    • It is a common practice in many of the mainline churches, especially those descended from Roman Catholicism. But you are right, it is by no means universal.

    • Peter

      The ashes started out as a Catholic thing, and have been continued by most Protestant churches that observe Lent. The Eastern Churches have completely different beginning rituals for Lent. (The one I’m most familiar with — my own — is that of the Eastern Orthodox, who have a rite of mutual forgiveness, where, in theory, everyone present asks forgiveness of everyone else individually. (In practice this is logistically tricky for congregations with more than about thirty people, and is dealt with in various different ways.))

  • EV

    When my husband and I entered a liturgical church after leaving a fundamentalist background, we decided we had lived in ongoing Lent for our entire lives. We weren’t going to do it. Now 17 years in we do some Lent but it isn’t a central part of preparation for Easter. The irony is I’ve written the church’s Christian formation curricula for Lent.

  • I don’t have a background of coming from fundamentalism or legalism, but I have never “observed” Lent (if by “observe” we mean giving something up) because I feel like it is unnecessary. Because of the cross, we do not have to follow the old Jewish rituals to be good or clean enough to enter into God’s presence. Earlier today I was thinking about how we don’t follow any of the other Jewish rituals (that I can think of), so it seems kind of strange to me that so many Christians do this one. Or maybe I am misinterpreting what it means to the Christians who do observe it. But I do not see myself ever doing it, because the way I see it is that Easter means we don’t have to make sacrifices of this kind anymore.
    The old is gone and the new has come, as they say.

    • kategladstone

      Re:
      “Earlier today I was thinking about how we don’t follow any of the other Jewish rituals (that I can think of), so it seems kind of strange to me that so many Christians do this one.”

      Lent isn’t a Jewish ritual. Will some Christian please explain to me (a Jew) why so many Christians decide that Lent is Jewish? (Do Christians ever check with any actual Jews before deciding that Lent is Jewish?)

      • I’m not sure. The fist time I encountered it in college, it was explained to me as a Christian tradition.

        Maybe because it’s connected to the Feast of Weeks? It’s also possible that because it’s a “tradition” some Christians assume that it comes from the Old Testament?

        • kategladstone

          Re: “Maybe because it [Lent]’s connected to the Feast of Weeks?”
          Is the strange phrase “Feast of Weeks” what Christians use instead of the actual name of a Jewish holiday called “Shavuot” (which means “weeks” because it is 7 weeks after Pesach)? If so, I’m having trouble understanding how a Christian would assume that a Christian ritual 40 days long was “connected with” — whatever that means — a Jewish ritual that’s two days long in most places but one day long in Israel. I am very puzzled by a LOT of the things that Christians teach as “facts” about Judaism.

          • Oh, me, too, Kate. Me, too. Most of the “facts” I learned growing up . . . sometimes make it very difficult for me to get a real understanding of Judaism today.

            The connection between Lent and Shavuot is tenuous at best, but it comes from Exodus 34:28, when Moses fasted for 40 days before he received the Commandments. That 40-day period, as well as Jesus fasting for 40 days in the wilderness, is why Christians decided to celebrate Lent for 40 days.

          • kategladstone

            The bit I don’t understand, about WHY so many Christians teach incorrect facts about Judaism, is that (often) the Christians who teach those incorrect facts regard it as religiously necessary to believe that those incorrect facts are correct. In other words: such Christians will say: “It is a a Jewish practice to do ______ ” or “The Jews believe that _______ ” — and when a Jew who is present points out: “No, actually Jews DON’T do that, Jews DON’T believe that,” the Jew will often be told (by the Christian): “No, you are incorrect in stating that your people do not do or believe ______. You see, we learn in church and Sunday School that you do this, and you believe that, and you have no right to ask us to change our beliefs about what your beliefs & practices are!” Why?

          • It is because the vast majority of Protestant Christians read only the Bible and have cut themselves off from all the other sources of knowledge about Christianity, so they try to ‘fill in’ with reasoning based on what they know.
            This even happens with things that are really 100% Christian. For example “Easter”: A lot of them are giving up Easter because they are convinced it is copied from a pagan holiday, they have made some connection between “Easter” and the Babylonian goddess “Astarte”. They say eggs and rabbits are her symbols and all kinds of weird things without historical substantiation. They are completely clueless that by the time Christianity came around no one even knew the name “Astarte” any more, and all Christians called it “Pascha” (from Pesach) until the English were converted 700 years later… and eggs are eaten at Pascha because for 40 days Christians originally ate nothing from animals (meat, dairy or eggs). They are totally clueless about what came before them.

      • shaneyirene

        I think it has to do with the idea that is prevalent in many evangelical churches that things like rituals, feasts, sacrifices, etc., were required in the Old Testament under Jewish law, but now that Christ has come, we don’t have to (and don’t) practice any of that. Thus, they tend to assume anything ritualistic is a Jewish practice, because Christians apparently don’t have any rituals at all.

        • kategladstone

          If there actually are Christians who think that Christianity doesn’t have rituals … Well, I’ve attended Christian weddings, and they were every bit as obviously _rituals_ as are Jewish weddings.

    • shaneyirene

      It sounds like you’re not very familiar with high church practices, liturgy, and the church calendar. Lent has absolutely nothing to do with Judaism, it’s 100% a Christian practice.

      Liturgy is not a “ritual.” It is a period of the church calendar specifically set aside to prepare our hearts for Easter. Not all Christians observe it, nor is it necessary to observe it, and not all observe it in the same way. The idea is that it’s something observed by many different Christians at the same time, giving a sense of the church as a whole preparing for Easter.

  • I understand that Lent is hard to “observe” if one is coming from a place of deprivation to begin with. I would humbly suggest a reading of this wonderful (IMHO) article: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wendymurray/2014/03/for-lent-i-give-up-not-buying-sweet-rolls/. She says – among other thngs – “So rather than entertain the question ‘what shall I give up for Lent’, ask ‘In what ways shall I invite God to assert transformative grace in my everyday life?’”

    Also, I have never ever heard anyone refer to Lent as a Jewish practice.

  • You gave up Lent for Lent! Good for you! From the way you are describing how the shadows of fundamentalism still haunt you, I think not observing Lent is a grand idea for you.

    I’m a Catholic convert. The past few Lents I didn’t give up anything b/c I was afraid I’d fail. This year I feel strong enough to give up my favorite food–cheese. When my hubby came home from work today he offered to get us a pizza. He doesn’t go to church at all, and I don’t want my Lenten observance to affect him. But he decided not to buy a pizza, and is eating Mexican food we have here at home. So, we saved a little bit of money.

    • Isn’t the joke that Mexican food is some kind of meat with cheese in some kind of tortilla-like bread? Enchiladas, burritos, tacos, chimichangas, quesadillas, etc.
      But good luck to you. Just reading about giving up cheese makes me itch to go stuff some in my face.

      • Reading your reply made me want to run over to Taco Bell! On Easter, for sure…

    • Moe

      The converts are always the most determined, but should you fail, Lent is a perfect time to seek forgiveness

      • True. I did end up giving something up for Lent. It’s been pretty difficult, but when I remember why I am denying myself something really unimportant, my mind goes to the One who gave everything up for me. But I wholeheartedly support those who are not observing Lent because they find it triggers legalistic thoughts and feelings. God knows each human heart, and I leave matters of things like Lenten observance up to him. God is pleased with more people than we human beings are. He is love.

  • Dana

    I have not attended churches where Lent was observed, but in my searching and questioning the last few years, I have done some readings designed for Lent.
    This year I started thinking about Lent, and what(if anything) I was going to do about it. I didn’t think that giving up something was really going to make any spiritual difference to me, as far as food goes I already eat a restrictive diet because of my health.
    I did read somewhere about someone adding something for Lent. This appealed to me because I look at this time as a time to focus on my spiritual life.
    This is what I’ve decided to do (and started this afternoon): I have a small journal that my daughter made me. Everyday I want to add something to it; a poem, scripture, prayer, a picture, a song. Something that is meaningful to me. At the end of Lent I will have my own prayer book to use for the rest of the year.

  • This year I decided to listen to Isaiah 58:6

    “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”

    I am donating a set amount of money each week in Lent to an organization in our community that works with victims of human trafficking. I am giving something up, in the sense that I don’t have that money to spend on something else, but I am doing this because it serves people that God has commended to our care. Next year I may volunteer for the organization, but apparently being accepted and trained as a volunteer is something of a process and I’m not certain I have skills they need.

  • I wasn’t sure at first where you were going with this post, but I liked where it ended up. It is a mistake to say that Lent = giving something up. “Fasting” in this or any other way is a good discipline in Lent, but it isn’t what Lent is about–it’s not the “purpose” of Lent. Lent is about preparing and looking forward to Easter and the resurrection. What we do in Lent, whatever discipline it may be, is supposed to point us toward that.

    I long ago stopped trying to ‘give up’ something for Lent, because I didn’t see the point anymore. I’m actually pretty terrible at Lenten disciplines. Maybe one day I’ll be able to pick one up, but it has to be something that orients me to the resurrection, or it’s pointless.

  • Nicole

    This too, is holy. Have a blessed non-fastidious pre-Easter season. 🙂

  • I am awful in trying to “give something up” There is something to letting go of something and then at Easter, rediscovering the joy of what you gave up. You may want to think of “giving up your time” for someone. (visiting a relative every week, ect. The idea is to be sorry for what you’ve done wrong and renew your commitment to choose to do what is good.
    Perhaps your lent is simply learning to accept that you are beloved by God and to rest in it.

    Here’s some history.
    http://catholicexchange.com/liturgical-ashes

    Blessings.

  • Alice

    I have never observed Lent because the Christian tradition I grew up in didn’t practice it. But I did a lot of fasting and giving things up in my preteen fundie days. I grew up with the mentality that you can’t enjoy anything more than Christian-related activities or that means you are “worshipping an idol” and must get rid of it. My parents took things away when I was “too obsessed.” Since college, I’ve been learning how to let myself enjoy without feeling guilty.

    I understand it can be beneficial to take a break from something for a while, but at least for now, there is too much baggage there.

    I’ve also learned to phrase goals positively, saying what I will do instead of “I’m going to stay away from Y” Focusing on the positive makes me feel less like I am punishing myself. 🙂

  • I’m also struggling with figuring out the kind of Lent that will allow me to truly embrace the joy of Easter; I really love this blog: http://beautyfromchaos.wordpress.com/
    It is the best non-preachy, non-judgmental lenten devotional I have found (the people who run it have an Advent blog as well, which I love).

    I think I’m also going to try a few things from this list, especially finding books to read that bring me peace, groundedness, and joy. Some of the Anne Lamott books I haven’t read yet, perhaps. http://maggidawn.blogspot.ch/2014/02/40-ways-keeping-joyful-thankful-holy.html?m=1

  • Colinde

    From one ex fundie not observing Lent to another – high five on snipping those titanium strings that like to hold on long after leaving. You pin point exactly my feeling on the issue: it’s all too easy to fall into denying myself yet another pleasure on the basis of ‘self flogging’ I was taught as a child. Basically any uncomfortable, strict exercise like this is “good for me”, because I’ve become comfortable – I’ve become complacent. Only…. Not. All I ever ended up concentrating on was the lack of or thoughts surrounding the actual *act*. It never spurred me to be able to feel closer to God or better understand/respect Easter. *shrug* I know those feelings of list checking: the idea of Lent being yet again another great “thing” to *ace* (as a super hardcore fundie) to prove (to who I don’t know) that my spiritual walk is good enough. Uhg. A habit that badly needs to be broken.

    This provides and interesting perspective in my life right now considering my boyfriend is Catholic and is observing it right now.

  • As a Baptist in a predominately Catholic state I’ve always felt Lent to be something “they” did and tried to ignore, like Dia De Lost Muertos, The burning of Zozobra. Lent from an outsider is food places adding fish to the menu, fish tacos anyone? And seeing people walking from Santa Fe to the Sanctuario de Chimayo, some while flagellating. To me it is still trying to work your way into heaven instead of believing in God’s Grace. Fat Tuesday has always made me feel Lent is just an excuse for one big party night and defeats the purpose.

  • Kreine

    I definitely can relate to using something (a practice or a fast) as the litmus test for your spirituality.

    May you defeat the dragons of shame & guilt & unworthiness.

  • Divizna

    So basically, the thing you’re giving up this year is the percieved duty of giving something up. May this meta-Lent prove meaningful for you.

  • I have never thought much about Lent – I don’t know anyone near me who observes it, though I know a few through social media who talk about it. I think that I, too, would have too much baggage from legalism for it to be meaningful for me to give things up in that way, but maybe I will look into ways of observing it that would mean something more to me.

  • As a forty year Catholic in recovery I still observe Lent but my observation is much different. I do not ‘give up’ things, instead I bring things in. What I mean by this is I look at my life, what is missing or what I have forgotten to do and I try to provide positive affirmations, to myself and others. This isn’t intended for just the 40 days of Lent but to become part of life affirmations, habits.

    This year so far has been very difficult for reasons I will not burden you with. To avoid bitterness from taking over my positive affirmations for Lent are:

    Seek joy, every day even if it is in a single small thing; then share it.
    Focus on the successes of life rather than failures, remind yourself of your accomplishments.
    Avoid bitterness, when it seeps in, refocus on what was good and beautiful and forgive.

  • Peter

    I’m reminded a bit of how, in Orthodoxy, people with eating disorders are often not allowed to participate in some of the food-related parts of the Lenten fast, as it wouldn’t be healthy for them to do so.

    • People with health issues who would be adversely affected by the fasting part of it (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) are excused from the food part of it. That also includes the no meat on Fridays part. In Lent, one can do more instead of having less. More time helping people, more time praying, more time reading the Bible, etc.. It’s not only about giving up something.

  • Kirala

    Myself, I’m giving up fasting for Lent. And I’m glad for the discipline.

    For the past year, I’ve been getting obsessed with fixing my chaotic work life. Sleep, food, and social time have been sacrificed on the altar. So for Lent, I’ve resolved to make sure i have 3 meals a day and none of them alone. (If I don’t have someone around to eat with, I have a devotional time; not alone with God around!)

    I think it’s very important to have a time when you formally decide to break off some of the distractions. I’m glad to hear you’re able to give up a form of legalism for Lent this year! Hang in there.

  • My family didn’t observe Lent very strictly when I was growing up. Sometimes my parents would make a unilateral decision for the family, such as, no pizza during Lent, or vegetarian meals on Fridays in Lent. The church we belonged to at the time had additional services during Lent, though, all of which we attended because either my mom was playing the organ or my dad was reading the lesson. I guess they figured all that extra church was sufficient!

    Once I got into high school, there was a lot of peer pressure to observe Lent by giving things up. Everybody would talk about what they were giving up and ask for help in sticking to it. People who gave up chocolate or driving to themselves to school or wearing pantyhose or wearing makeup were held in great respect. I usually picked something that was easy for me to give up, such as chocolate. My mom was convinced chocolate caused acne, so we never had any in the house. Easy!

    In college, our youth group leader instead encouraged us to give up a bad habit. This was harder and also helped me understand the point of Lent much better. Nowadays, I try to do two different things: I try to give up a bad habit (this year, it’s drinking carbonated beverages) and donate the money I would have spent to a worthy cause (in this case, to The Water Project); and I’m adding something by trying to keep a devotional journal.

    I like your fasting from fasting idea!