Wednesday, February 28, 2024


As published online in the Post

I get it. I get it that some Christian observers of Lent (including the pope) want certain traditional Lenten practices, such as fasting and abstinence, to be less about giving up food and more about giving up “not-nice” behaviors.

“Eat whatever you want for Lent,” the pope is alleged to have said in a popular social media meme, “the sacrifice is not in the stomach, but in the heart.” 

The pope, or at least the meme, continues: “They refrain from eating meat, but don’t talk to their siblings or relatives, don’t visit their parents or bother to attend to them, don’t share food with the needy…a good barbecue or beef stew won’t make you a bad person, just like a fish fillet won’t make you a saint.”

Another popular Lenten meme plays off the traditional practice of “giving something up for Lent.” It recommends that we give up complaining, pessimism, harsh judgements, worry, hatred, and the like, recommendations that appear to harbor - like the pope’s meme - a belittling of traditional fasting and abstinence.

I’m all for all of the above, but not as acts of Lenten self-denial. I’m for all of the above because it’s stuff we shouldn’t be doing in the first place. 

Fasting and abstinence during penitential religious seasons is about denying oneself that which is a normal good: like food, like sleep, like fellowship. This other stuff isn’t a good to deny oneself, it’s a bad we shouldn’t be doing at all. 

Plus there is the obvious problem that if you give this stuff up for Lent or commit to being nice to your parents for forty days, what are you going to do when Lent is over? Go back to your sinful and hurtful ways?

I know that’s not what the conjurers of these “recommendations” mean, but it’s what’s implied. And we have to be extra careful in these catechetically illiterate days not to send wrong messages via good intentions and further pave the road to hell.

Moreover, I can’t help but be suspicious that certain purveyors of these types of alternate Lenten practices are really looking for an excuse not to actually fast and abstain. Giving up food hurts. It hurts physically. And it’s supposed to. 

It’s supposed to turn us inward and bring us face to face with our fragile mortality, our human helplessness - the fact that we are, in the end, save for our immortal souls, nothing but ashes and dust, which is why Lent begins with ashes and dust and ends in a tomb.

And once you leave the traditional road of fasting and abstinence and start substituting other stuff, you open the doors for the crazy. One nationally-known Catholic cleric recommended that we give up carbon for Lent. Yah, carbon. Not out of love for God but for love of “the planet.” 

In the end, the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not about anything other than fastening ourselves to the Cross of Christ for no reason other than love for Him. All good things will follow. 

Meanwhile, let’s stop doing the bad stuff we shouldn’t be doing in the first place, not just for Lent, but forever. 

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