Today is Ash Wednesday. If you’re a “planning ahead” type of Christian, you may have over-indulged yesterday on whatever delicacy or vice you seek to avoid until Easter. Or maybe you don’t observe Lent that way and wonder what all this “giving up something” is about. Personally, I have always marveled at this relationship between behaviors and beliefs. Would giving up potato chips for 40 days make me a better Christian?
When I was a kid, I noticed that all my little friends carefully considered what treat they planned to give up for Lent. As the lone (it seemed) Presbyterian in a Catholic neighborhood, the concept was foreign to me. I mean, Lent was a thing, of course, but no Sunday school teacher ever implied we should observe it by giving up anything.
My friends, however, were deadly serious about it – they solemnly selected a favorite thing (usually sweets) and then abstained. Friday school lunches were meatless and desserts went un-touched. The collective willpower was impressive.
Despite the prevalence of Lenten sacrifice throughout my childhood, I didn’t get the reason for it until I was an adult. The behavior alone was significant enough to make an impression on me, so I never wondered about the beliefs behind it. Now, anyone can Google it: Lent is associated with penance and abstinence to reflect the 40 days and nights that Jesus fasted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2).
I don’t know how much my young friends really understood about Lent while they fastidiously avoided temptation for 40 days. So much of their religious behavior perplexed me: all the kneeling and sitting in church, making the sign of the cross, and most of all their descriptions of how priests would assign them repetitions of the “Hail Mary” during Confession.
Does participation in rituals and strict observation of rules make faith more meaningful? Does behavior equal belief?
Not always. I know Catholics whose children are being schooled in all the rituals my childhood friends observed, but the parents definitely don’t believe in all the values of the Catholic Church. A friend of mine who’s an Orthodox Jew (observes Shabbat, keeps a kosher home, threw a huge party for his son’s bar mitzvah) told me matter-of-factly that he considers himself an atheist.
And yet…traditional behaviors can be comforting. They connect us to others in our faith community and if performed thoughtfully, can remind us of the beliefs behind them.
I am partial to Lenten behaviors that are additive. Any daily activity – like prayer or Bible study or reading a devotional – is a perfectly acceptable way to practice Lenten self-discipline. But after missing out on all that “giving up something” as a kid, I admit that I feel drawn to consider the practice now.
That’s why I had a spectacularly huge bowl of potato chips last night. It was divine. After getting the most out of my own personal Fat Tuesday, I am now ready for Lent.