Even in our secular society, it’s still not time to give up Lent.
And so it begins: ‘tis the season of self-denial, abstinence and inflated bragging rights. Lasting the duration of the 6 weeks before Easter, Lent is the commemoration of Jesus’s fasting in the wilderness and is one of the most important times of the year for many Christians. But for the next 40 days and 40 nights, expect all your favourite social media influencers to indulge in a secular form of this rite in a moral superiority contest to see who can abnegate the hardest and look the best doing it. Many Christians object to the co-opting of this religious observance as stripping away the spiritual purpose of Lent for the sake of vanity and conceit, which for the most part I agree with. However, even in a society where Christianity is no longer the default, the universal human desire to find meaning in ritual could still do us a lot of good.
The word Lent itself derives from the Germanic word for ‘spring’, the season of growth. By giving up something that features heavily in our daily lives, be that chocolate, alcohol, social media or even negative behaviour, penance strengthens our resolve and simulates the experiences of those with less than us. Lent is a time of reflection and an escape from a society obsessed with instant gratification; it lays bare the difference between fleeting pleasure and lasting happiness, and shows us which one is more worthwhile.
Yet, temptation and control are only a small part of the festival. As thousands of priests around the world utter the words “from ashes you came and unto ashes you shall return” to their congregation on Ash Wednesday, Christians are not only sombrely reminded of their mortality but also the reasons that they should not fear it. Religious or not, death will come to us all, but in a culture that irrationally fears the inevitable, it’s important to confront our feelings on the big sleep. Whatever you may believe about the afterlife, there is no better time of year than Lent to come to terms with what cannot be avoided and possibly even cope better with any grief you may be experiencing.
Another crucial element in Lent that is often forgotten is that of almsgiving, the practice of donation. While introspection is essential, it is useless without direct action as a consequence. Why not use the time between now and Easter to donate the food you’re not eating to a food bank, the money you’re not spending to a charity, the time you are not wasting to a voluntary role for a noble cause?
Any atheist, agnostic or religious zealot can adopt the tenants of Lent. Some in the church complain that secular Lent is a commercialisation of their religion, but actually it’s quite the opposite. As the antithesis of conspicuous consumption, the observance is very counter-cultural, unlike other popular Christian celebrations – ahem, Christmas!
Your reasons for following any of these need not be religious or even vaguely spiritual but for God’s (or someone else’s, or no-one’s) sake, don’t just join in for the sake of self-righteousness. Making big shows of virtue is a violation of Lent’s purpose. Nevertheless, even as we as a society move away from organised religion, there is still a lot to learn from rituals that champion contemplation and the improvement of oneself. Although it will take more than 40 days to become the perfect human, it’s certainly a good start.