Lent begins tomorrow, and it’s worth thinking about what it can mean for us today. Some people with add more prayer, others fast and some will give up a small luxury, like chocolate or alcohol. Others will see options and do nothing. I might be in this do-nothing camp, but don’t want to be. My problem with Lent is that so many of its particular disciplines, particularly around fasting and abstinence, were developed in or recovered from a pre-modern era. They just don’t feel particularly Protestant and while that shouldn’t matter, it does. There’s something strange about fixed periods for doing what you ought to do all the time. As a vegetarian, say, I’m not prone to wild feasting any more, at any time.
I can’t help think that ancient disciplines developed to make the most of available resources. If famine threatened you, it makes sense to develop cycles of feasting and fasting. Enjoy the bounty when you can, but be able to live with dignity when there’s little to be had. If we look to ancient, and now-strange, disciplines of mortification, they might make more sense when there was nothing like modern medicine. Our bodies did and still can fail catastrophically, but without modern medical care, the best one could hope for was to appeal to God or the saints for help, and to esteem the undying spirit over the perishable flesh.
But our relationship to food and personal health are different today. Even if we don’t have what we want, we cannot pretend that something better doesn’t exist for others. (Which is a bitter thought, but an inescapable one for those who don’t have the basic goods of life.) Even if we look to places of food scarcity — either the lack of attainable, high-quality food in poorer neighborhoods in wealthy countries, or safe, affordable and adequate food in poorer countries — the knowledge of bounty elsewhere must be recognized. And it’s hard to imagine that real deprivation can be easily sanctified for those without, or honestly adopted by those who have the rest of the year.
So, on this Fat Tuesday, I choose not to feast any more than I already do, nor fast tomorrow. I’m not sure where my Lenten disciplines will take me, or how they will develop, but they must start with the idea that each of us deserve the makings of a decent life, in material and spiritual terms. Today’s celebrations and tomorrow’s reflections are not so far apart, or ought not be. Lent, perhaps, can be distinguished by its intentionality rather than its intensity or particular devotions. Of course, there are people who do this already; it is not an original thought, but one that has to be expressed clearly and frequently to grow and spread. So to you, prayers form a sanctifying (but not self-satisfied) Lent.