Don't worry. I may write about an Episcopal priest, but I'm not going to sermonize you. What fascinates me about Lent - about the idea of a time set apart with discipline and self-denial - is how widespread it is. Ramadan, in Islam. The Hindu festival of Navatri. The Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It seems as if wherever people gather together, they strike upon the idea of doing without. Voluntarily.
Of course, self-discipline and voluntarily doing without is practically the American way. We foreswear gluten, and carbs, and eggs and bad fats. We haul ourselves up on our exercise bikes and treadmills and dutifully put in the miles. While the citizens of France and Germany are enjoying their six-week vacations, we're putting in overtime at the office. Maybe calling our habits voluntary is a misnomer. Instead, it's a lot of cultural expectations and guilt.
Any country that pretty much invents a new eating disorder - orthorexia - has the "fasting" thing down pat. For most people, that's the definition of Lent, and Ramadan, and Yom Kippur. Giving up food, whether it be meat on Fridays or meals between sunrise and sunset. Giving up is another thing we're good at in contemporary America - we give up smoking, and eating animal products and toxic relationships. Sometimes, we're really stupid about the things we give up, like vaccines and privacy.
The problem is, it's too easy to give up things (I'm going to make a broad exception for cigarette smokers.) Lent rolls around and people will say, "I'm giving up chocolate." Or wine. Or tea. (I gave up tea one Lent while in law school and I nearly passed out from caffeine cravings during my Property Class.) The most devastating wits will inform you they are "giving up Lent." That one was old back in the days of the Avignon papacy.
I don't mean to say that it's easy to stop eating Doritos or drinking beer for forty days - mmmm. Beer and Doritos. Just that when you live in a country where most of us have better food, warmer houses and more stuff than your average 15th century monarch, giving up Hersheys isn't much of a sacrifice.
What we are bad at is doing without. We don't like to do without giant agribusiness, or gas-hogging SUVS, or clothing that's cheap because it's made by people working for twenty-four cents an hour. We don't like to do without 139 channels and pizza delivery guys and really low property and income tax. We're great at giving up - especially if what we're giving up is guaranteed to make us Lose Weight, Look Years Younger and Get Healthy in 21 Days. (Hint: it won't.)
There's something in human nature that wants to fast and abstain, in these short periods of time when, if you're lucky, self-discipline can work a transformation in you. Imagine what we could transform with a little less giving up and a lot more doing without. Or, to put what it took me nine paragraphs to convey into just two sentences, this is what the prophet says:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?