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You Know Lent, But Once Again, We’ve Americanized A Religious Tradition

If you know Lent, you have probably witnessed someone spending forty days without a daily pleasure. Today, this commonly includes the giving up of things like beer, chocolate, or social media. Others spend more time in self-reflection, prayer, or with their families.

While the practices of Lent vary substantially among people who observe the religious tradition, there are generally two ways that people participate in Lent.

First, what is Lent?

“Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring.” The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. Lent is a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection.”

Among the 24% of Americans who participate in Lent, the type of participation generally falls into one of two categories: traditional and non-traditional.

The distinction of these categories is between those who practice Lent in the traditional way with their churches, and those who personally decide to give something up for the Lenten period. In the traditional way, the centuries old practice of Lent is centered around group participation, as a church body. There is fasting, increased attendance of church services, and other rituals depending on the particular church.

Annie Rodenfels, a Catholic and a student at Centre College, described her typical participation in Lent, (along with Good Friday Mass and Easter Sunday Mass): “I usually don’t eat meat on Fridays, [I’ll] give up some other things for Lent, and additionally try to be more diligent about praying and reading the Bible.”

Terry Mattingly, Professor at The King’s College and Columnist at On Religion, talked about the traditional setting of Lent as a “journey to Easter,” where the church walks through the fast together. They are then able to truly celebrate on Easter, recognizing the completion of the journey they had all been apart of.

On the other general side of Lenten practices, there are those who quietly decide to give something up in a fast until Easter. Most who participate in Lent do so this way, and Mattingly referred to this as the “American” version. The idea of picking and choosing one thing we want to give up for Lent is very individualized. This idea of “creating your own Lent” is “just so American,” Mattingly says.

Rodenfels offered encouragement for all types of Lenten practice:

“I think sacrificing something can be a really beautiful imitation of what Jesus sacrificed with his life…I think there can be great value in Lent because it’s both difficult in our modern day era of consumerism and materialism and I think it is symbolically powerful in that it shadows the sacrifice that Jesus gave to us, so we can give a small sacrifice back.”

Photo by greg westfall.

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