I grew up in the Episcopal Church in a very Anglo-Catholic parish (with a Mary altar!) in a very Roman Catholic town, and so Lenten fasting was a topic of conversation for as long as I can remember. Friday Night Fish Fries are a big deal in the part of Wisconsin where I was raised, and so were lunchroom cafeteria conversations about what people gave up for Lent. (There wasn’t much else going on in my hometown, clearly.)
I remember, in particular, my mother saying that not everybody gives up something for Lent, but some people resolve to try new things. I see this now as a well-meaning but ineffective way to try to get me to eat asparagus. She also mentioned that maybe my brother and I could give up fighting with one another for Lent.
I think our answer to that was something along the lines of: nice try, mom, but we’ll just take a pass on chocolate for 40 days instead.
Now that I’m an adult and a parent myself, I can see my mom’s attempts to try to steer our behavior using Lent as a guide. Why not capitalize on a little cultural Catholic guilt to try to form a new habit?
I haven’t talked much with my kids about Lenten sacrifice, although I think we’ve made a few half-hearted attempts to try something new to improve the world, by making artwork for senior citizens, or making a practice to compliment one another every night at dinner.
Last year, though, I tried to wield Lent over my husband’s head for my own selfish reasons. The 2016 election was just behind us, but the news media was unrelenting in its wake. Because of my husband’s job, he’s somewhat constrained in what he can say about politics in mixed company. And so, he talked about it at home. A lot.
By the time Ash Wednesday rolled around, we were all very well informed, but not particularly happy about it. I asked my husband if, maybe, we could lay off the newsreel on Sundays in Lent. The opposite of a “feast day” when some Christians don’t participate in their usual weekday sacrifice, our Sundays would (hopefully) represent an abstinence from a different kind of temptation. He could still read and consume the news, of course, but maybe not discuss it.
My husband readily agreed and said it was a great idea. And then he broke our “fast” on the second Sunday of Lent. Kyrie Eleison.
As it turns out, my attempts to modify others’ behavior during the six weeks before Easter haven’t really been any more effective than my mother’s were thirty years ago. And is that really any surprise? Even with the best of intentions, our sacrifices (or better yet, suggestions for other people’s sacrifices) will never measure up to the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert.
I’m not comfortable with Jesus’ sacrifice as a motivational tool anyway. When we are reminded that Jesus died on the cross, which is how Lent inevitably ends (every year!), we are reminded that we’ve been freed from our sins, without having to “earn” that freedom with our own sacrifices. By expecting Kingdom perfection from our own efforts, we’re often reminded that only God can offer that kind of perfection.
And so, regardless of whether we decide to forego something this Lent or add to our repertoire of good deeds, I hope that our efforts serve to remind us of the sacrificial Love that died for us all to reside in that Kingdom in the world to come.
Do you attempt behavior modification during Lent? How does that go?