Last week, Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent. Observant Christians are meant to use the time for repentance and spiritual discipline in order to create a receptive mindset for Holy Week when the Passion of Christ is remembered, and also for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. For many, the tradition calls for a small sacrifice, “giving up” something for Lent.
Any cursory Internet search will reveal the denominational groups known to observe Lent. Conspicuously left off most of the lists are the Baptists. Though recently Baptists have been more observant than in the past, I grew up without being taught to observe Lent and I experienced it as something foreign, unfamiliar.
I was raised in the northern suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. Right across the street from one of my childhood homes was a large Catholic church made up mostly of second- and third-generation Irish, German and Italian Catholics. It was a closely knit community and I was one of the few who did not attend the church or the school. They all practiced Lent.
I remember hearing their conversations each year about what they were going to give up. Usually it was things like chocolate or Fritos or Twinkies, and sometimes swearing. Every now and again someone would ask me what I was planning to sacrifice. I always said I didn’t know. I thought Lent was mostly superficial because often the sacrifices did not seem difficult. It was possible to over-indulge on fruit candy instead of chocolate, potato chips rather than corn chips, and I thought they might do well to give up swearing permanently.
But this year I decided to give up soft drinks, mainly Pepsi. My motivation is clearly selfish. Pepsi has caffeine and sugar and causes weight gain and high cholesterol and is not good for the teeth. In reality, I am not so much giving it up for Lent as just trying to give it up. It is my addiction, and while I do not believe an occasional one will do much harm, I need to cut way back, for my own sake. I have tried before. I am humbled by how difficult it has been.
More recently, I was working in retail and one of my co-workers was not very religious, not much of a believer at all. He was young and liked a good party, so I was surprised when he said he was going to give up beer for Lent. I said, “I thought you were not very religious.” He said he wasn’t but he thought sacrifice was a good thing. He is right. Much of the good we know in life is accompanied by hard work and sacrifice.
Sacrifice, however, made in order to gain something, like the giving up of soft drinks in order to help lower the cholesterol and lose weight, is not really a sacrifice. The affirmation of sacrifice is not what Lent is about. The attitude sought is humility, the acknowledgment of helplessness before God, the complete dependence upon grace.
Perhaps the best Lenten sacrifice is the one that brings failure so we can learn not to rely upon our own strength. The lesson to learn is that it is better to be forgiven than it is to gain something or be vindicated. Vindication is temporary and illusory, failing to acknowledge need for grace by trying to gain something or prove merit. Being proven right is a wall of defense that leaves out the possibility of reconciliation. Redemption is permanent and liberating, allowing service without the burden of perfection or the sting of guilt. Forgiveness is an invitation to relationship. If giving up chocolate or Pepsi can help us to learn our weakness, and also to see the magnificence of grace, then it is worth whatever is sacrificed, even if there are other benefits.