Alina Snopkowski, Editor
The “What are you giving up for Lent this year?” conversation in my family is always fun because there’s always someone we think is playing the system and giving up something the rest of us don’t think is “enough.” It’s like the whole experience is some sort of competition of who can be the “best” Catholic. “I’m going to give up YouTube,” one of my sisters says. “You watch maybe one YouTube video a week,” someone replies. “I’m gonna give up ice cream,” my brother says. “We don’t even buy ice cream in February,” our dad reminds him. “I’m giving up fish,” one of my other sisters says. “But you hate fish,” is the immediate response.
I’ve “cheated” at Lent too. When I was about 12, I gave up TV, and I was doing pretty well, too, until I watched a few minutes of an episode of Arthur reflecting in the window in the wall opposite the TV. I thought I was going straight to Hell for that one.
This year for Lent I’m giving up soda and Jetpunk.com, which is a trivia website I spend all my free time taking geography and history quizzes on. I’ve given up the same things for the past three years, and I’m starting to think I might be missing the point.
Recently I’ve been hearing that instead of giving something up for Lent, an alternative is to do something extra that you wouldn’t normally do, such volunteering somewhere or saying an extra prayer or reflection. The idea is that you end up continuing to do that after Lent, therefore bringing you closer to God or more involved in your community or both. I’ve heard that the ‘giving something up’ part is supposed to have a similar affect — you end up continuing it, to some degree, after Lent is over. You give up sweets for Lent and then, after Lent, you find yourself eating less chocolate and desserts because you realize you can do fine without them. I think that sounds pretty good. Except every Easter Sunday, after I eat breakfast and go to church with my family, I open up my laptop and take the forty days’ worth of Jetpunk quizzes I missed. While drinking a can of soda, probably. And that’s it. Lent is over, I’m back to my old habits, and there’s no long-term change in my behavior. Is that wrong? I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
Lent, the way I understand it, is supposed to be about sacrifice, giving something up and giving of yourself in a way that brings you closer to God. But I realize I’ve fallen into a pattern of just going through the motions — I stop drinking soda and playing online trivia because it’s expected, I don’t eat meat on Fridays, I say I’m trying to do Lent the right way, but, after Lent is over, there’s no real change in my life. I see myself falling into these patterns a lot when I think about my relationship to religion — how much of what I do is done only because it is expected of me?
Today is Ash Wednesday. Thanks to Covid there’s no churches nearby holding in-person Mass where I can get my ashes, and that in and of itself got me thinking about Lent, and my relationship with religion, in a way I don’t think I have before. Today is the first Ash Wednesday I can remember where I won’t have a physical symbol of my faith on my forehead. I’ll have to rely on my actions — how I treat others, how I conduct myself — if I want to show others what I believe. I suppose that’s the way it should always be? I could go to Mass every morning and eat nothing but water and oatmeal for the next forty days, but those outward, physical actions are probably pretty meaningless if I’m not doing them for the right reasons. I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about how much of what I do is between me and God, like I think it should be, and how much is a performance for others, me trying to ‘prove myself’ in some way to those around me. I was taught not to hide my faith, but I also believe that religion is a very personal thing. Where is the line between not being ashamed or embarrassed for your beliefs, and where does it become “rubbing your religion in someone’s face?” I used to think the distinction was pretty obvious, but now I’m not so sure.
I don’t know a lot of things about religion. I do know that I won’t be playing online trivia for the next month and a half, and I’ll be drinking water instead of soda at the diner I work at, and on Fridays on my lunch break I’ll have to ask the cooks for tuna fish sandwiches instead of turkey or roast beef. I also know that this year in particular I’ll be reflecting a little bit more about why I’m doing those things — and I hope that, by the time Easter rolls around, I’ll understand a little bit better.