The desire to “give up something” for Lent lasts all year. The second most visited post on my blog is one I wrote about Lent in 2011: “33 things to give up for Lent.” All year long people come to this post by searching for the topic “give up for Lent”. Which is intriguing, because Lent doesn’t last all year. Lent is a name for the 47 days from Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday. It is 40 days (plus six regular Sundays and Easter Sunday).
Lent is an old word that means spring. If you had to pick a phrase that best captures what people think of Lent it’s this: giving up. Not as in quitting a competition, but as in giving up something. People observing Lent give up something that matters to them. Often it’s food, like meat on Friday or sugar for the 40 weekdays. Sundays often are free days, exempt from the giving up. As best as I can tell, it started with the idea of helping people appreciate the festivities of Easter. If we spend the time before Easter preparing our hearts and our bodies, the celebration has more significance.
The forty days are designed to resonate with the forty-day seasons that show up in the Bible. Jesus fasted for forty days. Moses was on the mountain for 40 days. Noah and his family watched it rain for forty days and forty nights.
Older than the name Lent is the term “fasting”. It is also about giving up. Fasting most simply is giving up that for this. That is something good in itself. This is something great. That is nourishing to a point. This is life itself.
That’s why Lent isn’t about giving up sin. Think about it. “I’ll give up my affair for forty days. But every Sunday, just for the day, I go back to my mistress.” Ludicrous.
It’s easy to get legalistic about 40 days of fasting. When humans are presented with a boundary, we focus on the boundary. What counts as fasting? How much can you eat without breaking the fast? How long? What health matters? Focus may be a better word than Lent, fasting or giving up. Often, the best way to give something up is to choose what to focus on instead. In the case of Lent, the intended focus is God. We’ll talk about God a lot.
When I wrote the “33 things” post, I didn’t set out to write a title that would get 27,000 views; I just wrote a list of things other than food to give up. But the brief seasonal spike in readers and the steady traffic during the rest of the year intrigues me. People turn to search engines when they want practical spiritual advice. And why not? There is a virtual ton available. But if one of your spiritual goals is following Lent, the challenge isn’t in finding what to give up. It’s the challenge of actually getting up every day and giving up. And that happens best in relationship, not search.