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What Do I Give Up for Lent?

This week I was asked why I did not give up sweets and fatty foods for Lent, since my doctor had suggested I give these up for my health anyway. When I was asked I was at a loss for words (a rare circumstance for me, indeed!) and I mumbled something or another that wasn't particularly profound. However, as I pondered over this question, and as I did some research over the early church's response to Lent, I believe I have a better answer than my previous "pockets full of mumbles."

Lent is the season of the year when Christians have traditionally contemplated the sacrifice of Jesus Christ during his pilgrimage to earth. Christians in the recent past have symbolically joined with Jesus in this season by giving up one thing or another, sweets, meat, and so on. This year I gave up coffee­which was what prompted the question of why I didn't give up something that would more appropriately aid in my health plan.

The early church celebrated Lent by serious fasting during this season. The earliest written mention we have of Lent is by Hippolytus, a second century theologian. The fact that Lent has a name and traditions attached to it indicates the season predates Hippolytus by some time. By the end of the third century the Church had begun to formalize the customs of the Lenten season. These customs included an appeal for Christians to join together in fasting regularly in this season of reflection. By the fourth century the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople the Church formally defined the Lenten dogmas. During Lent Christians were to abstain from all forms of meat, eggs, cheese, and milk. Apparently the Roman Church fasted the whole season of Lent, while the Eastern Church broke the fast on the Sabbath (Saturday) and on the Lord's Day (Sunday)­which caused a good deal of consternation at the Council. In any event, good Christians were expected to keep these fasts or face being "cut off" from the Church.

The stated purpose of the Lenten fast was to share in the sufferings of Christ and to encourage prayer, self-reflection, and repentance from sin. Indeed, John Chrysostem, a popular preacher in the early church, said that the Christian benefits from fasting only to the extent that they repent of their sins. However, that's not the only point Chrysostem makes about the Lenten fast. He also remands Christians that when they break the fast after Lent they should do so with joy, celebration, and feasting in celebration of the risen Christ.

Now, personally I acknowledge that gluttony is a sin (Proverbs 23 20-21; Titus 1.12) and giving up unhealthy foods could indicate a penitent heart; however, if we give up something we need to give up we defeat the purpose of the Lenten fast­we're giving it up for ourselves, not for the sake of reflection nor in accord with the sacrifice of Christ.

So, this is the reason I gave up coffee (and espresso latté) for Lent instead of going on some sort of diet. Giving up coffee really is a sacrifice and it helps me in my contemplation of Christ's passion. It probably didn't make my doctor very happy, but then, when Lent was over, I'd be in worse shape than ever­after I celebrated the risen Christ for the next 316 days of the year!

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