We're a day late to make Lenten remarks, but thirty-nine days is better than nothing.
The practice of Lent is ancient, representing a period of repentance leading up to the celebration of Easter. In the sweeping way that specialists in one area of learning deal with other areas, we'll offer that its origin and development had a lot to do with trying to address the nominalism of medieval Christianity with behavioral practices that drank deeply at the wells of neo-Platonic spirit/matter dualism, promoting aceticism, the denial of physical pleasures or the infliction of physical pain, as the antidote to lack of spirituality.
SWNID lives in ecclesiatical circles that historically rejected the medieval accretions of European Christianity, tried to reform or restore along biblical lines, and in the process adopted a lot of praxis that reflected American notions about individualism, democracy and the like. These days, some denizens of our circles tend to be rather self conscious about all that. Consequently, many are attracted to ancient practices that haven't been part of their experience. Like Lent. Like the so-called "classical spiritual disciplines." Like the lives of the saints, religious iconography, ancient liturgy, vestments, Gothic architecture, Gregorian chant, episcopal authority, etc.
But this is about Lent. Back to it, via what will seem a diversion.
Every Good Friday, the media covers the few folk, often these days in the Philippines, who allow themselves to be literally crucified (SWNID insists on using "literally" in its literal sense) though not to the point of death and often with sanitized, stainless-steel spikes. Our habit is to point out to our enthusiastic and impressionable students that this practice has no relationship to the teaching of Jesus or the example of Jesus. Jesus died for the sake of others. These folk are imitating Jesus' death purely to benefit themselves, as far as we can tell, by way of what is often called "mortification of the flesh" in a sense that the apostle who coined the phrase didn't intend. There's no discernible benefit to anyone else (the benefit to themselves is perverse, but that's another matter).
Now, to Lent. Is giving something up for Lent a thoughtful way to pursue repentance that is oriented to the Christ of the Cross? Or is it like self-crucifixion: having the appearance of spirituality but really tied to an orientation toward oneself that prioritizes one's own purity without considering that one's purity is defined by actions, rooted in attitudes, toward others? Is it a wasted opportunity to serve others that has been turned inward?
Mostly, what the modal Lenten observant gives up for Lent provides no benefit to anyone. Giving up coffee or chocolate or meat or Facebook or situation comedies or whatever--does anyone benefit from that but the one doing the giving up? And what benefit accrues even to that person? Does the Lenten observant become more loving, more generous, more thoughtful? If so, it is by indirect means only, so would it not be better to do so by direct means, that is, deliberately pursuing such virtues and behaviors?
And if doing this or that for forty days has such a benefit, is there some special reason to confine the practice to about a tenth of the year?
SWNID will be glad to hear from gentle readers who find Lent meaningful for some particular reason. But we lay down the challenge: how does one's observance of Lent honor the Christ who willingly gave his life to bring profound blessing to people who certainly didn't deserve it?