So, what are you giving up for Lent?
Over the weekend, I was at a Mardi Gras gathering. People wore masks. Some arrived in costume. There was music and food and revelry. There were also people asking "Are you giving anything up for Lent?" I mostly dodged the question, or attempted to answer by making a joke. The truth was, I hadn't decided yet. Also, I'm not sure it was any of their business.
I have several friends who are Orthodox of various stripes, and when the fasts roll around, I've often found myself envious of the regimented nature of those fasts. Great Lent in particular is a period of actual fasting, with detailed instructions about what to abstain from and when. People who are preparing food know what they can and cannot use. A friend of mine even started a blog to write about fasting recipes!
And then there are the Western Christians. We start out Lent with smudgy foreheads and the reminder that "You are dust and to dust you shall return." But then what? No meat on Fridays? OK. And then everyone's own individual choices about chocolate or coffee. Are we supposed to "give up" something so that it hurts? Are we trying to lose weight? Is the Lenten fast really more than a New Year's resolution?
Lent, of course, is a season when we are called to prayer, fasting, and good works. It is certainly a time for examining conscience as well as for spiritual reflection and simplicity. But the decision of what to give up, if anything, is one that can be deeply personal. Generally speaking, the people I know who "give up" stuff for Lent and do it well have done some serious soul searching. They look at their lives and try to figure out what it is that has set up a barrier between them and God. What is standing as an impediment to spiritual fulfillment? What in my life has caused me to veer away from the center? What can I give up that will lead me back to prayer and good works?
This is a very personal process, and really not one that is great for small talk. Choosing a Lenten fast is about much more than chocolate or coffee. When you think about it, "What are you giving up for Lent?" is a shockingly intimate question, and one that asks the other person to stand naked before you, baring the details about their consciences, their spiritual lives, and their relationships with God. So it is a question that should be approached with trepidation and sensitivity, if at all.