By Stephen Holland
We are now the midst of Lent, but does that really mean anything in the world we live in today? The purpose of Lent is for Christians to prepare for the coming of Easter through penance and self-denial. It lasts for 40 days in commemoration of the 40 days and nights Jesus spent fasting in the Judaean Desert. As if through mimicking his actions, by abstaining from something that we enjoy, we can more thoroughly understand Christ and thus be brought closer to God. It is a noble concept, but in 2021 it can all feel a little bit old world and outdated.
When I was a child, I took Lent very seriously. Me and my two sisters would give up sweets every year. No chocolate, no jellies, no biscuits. If it was sweet, it was off limits. Occasionally we would make an exception for the St Patrick’s Day parade when sweets would be thrown out to the crowd. Although to me this felt sinful, like I had broken a scared pact with God. I knew I should not do it, but the ChupaChups from the Sligo scouts brigade were just too enticing for a seven-year-old to pass up.
But my monk–like devotion to the practice of Lent may not be as noble as it first seems. This was because there was an alternative purpose to my abstinence. Every year on the first day of Lent I would secure a tin box. This I called my “sweet tin”, and every time I was offered something sweet throughout the 40 days of Lent, I would be more than happy to accept it and quietly store it in my sweet tin. Like a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter, I would fill my sweet tin with every variety of surgery treat. Then, on Easter Sunday, I would gorge on 40 days’ worth of snacks, making the whole process of self-denial redundant. I had merely mastered the art of delayed gratification and would reward myself in an obscene display of gluttony.
As I grew older the practice fell away and by the time I’d entered my teens I no longer participated in it. But this year has got me thinking deeply about the concept of Lent. The idea of a Lenten sacrifice, a daily discipline based on self-determination, resilience, and strength feels oddly appropriate for 2020 and 2021.
What are some of the most absurd answers you could think of if someone asked you pre-Covid what you were giving for Lent? I’ll give you some of mine:
“I’m giving up going more than 5km from my house.”
“I’m giving up meeting anyone outside of my own household.”
“I’m giving up visiting anyone, or going anywhere, or doing anything.”
The restrictions have been difficult for everyone but, when you think about it, that’s what Lent is all about. Restrictions. Except this time, it has not lasted 40 days, it has lasted for more than a year. But what we have done, and what we accomplished together, has saved countless lives and that is truly commendable.
The idea of Lent is that if you take away the things you enjoy, you will appreciate them more when they have been returned to you. It is a mindful practice that allows you to truly get to know and respect the things you enjoy. I miss my friends. I miss my freedoms. I miss travelling, and festivals, the cinema, and the pub. But, just like Lent, this too shall pass. Unfortunately, there is no sweet tin that can include all the experiences we have missed out on over the past year, but we certainly won’t take our passions for granted after this is all over. So, when someone asks if I’ve given up anything for Lent this year, I say no, because we have been living in a constant state of Lent for so long already. Covid–19 has been like the longest 40 days of our lives but there is an end in sight. Hallelujah.