Faith at the Margins Lead Paul Coleman reflects on how and why we observe Lent today.

What are your Lent traditions? Do you give things up like wine, chocolate, or heaven forbid, coffee? Do you take on something new? A time of prayer, a daily devotional, or a donation of time or money to charity? In recent years it has become less common to focus on giving things up, and instead many people choose to take on something new.  

I recently had several conversations with stall holders in Kirkgate Market and was interested to find out that since the pandemic, fewer people have been giving things up for Lent. Where some of the bakeries and sweet stalls used to see a reduction in customers in the run up to Easter, this year they haven’t noticed much change in buying patterns. This was summed up beautifully by one person who said,  

“Life is hard enough at the moment without giving up on small pleasures, I know it is supposed to be good for me, but I just want to enjoy life.” 

There is a general idea that Lent is supposed to be “good for us”, and some people seem to view it as a “second chance” at their New Years Resolutions. Others made a link with the temptation of Jesus, but weren’t sure how it related to modern life. From the conversations I had it appears that people are aware of Lent but are not clear what it is actually about.  

My own experience of Lent is a bit mixed. The pattern of the liturgical year is experienced differently in different denominations, and I have had a very diverse experience of churches, some of which take Lent very seriously, and others which ignore it completely. Personally, I have never given anything up for Lent, and in the past have been less than successful at taking any new habits on. I suspect this is, at least in part, because I have never really understood what Lent is about and even now find myself with a lot of questions.  

One idea I have often come across is that Lent is about self-imposed suffering and penance in the hope of somehow pleasing God. Yet reading Micah 6:8 suggests that this is not the case. God does not require “that kind” of fast. It is not about demonstrating our piety or holiness; in fact, a more appropriate and welcome act of fasting is for us to take action to bring about justice for those most in need.  

Another explanation is that Lent is a time of preparation. For Jesus it was preparation for his ministry on Earth. A time in which he learnt not to rely on his own strengths and abilities, but instead to trust in God the Father. Jesus’ example of resisting the temptation to act out of his own strength and instead giving the glory to God provides a good model for us to follow as we act to bring justice for those in need.  

The problems we face in society, of poverty, racism, ableism, to name but a few, often seem to be overwhelming and our best efforts barely scratch the surface. But what if, like Jesus, we learn to rely on God, rather than on our own strengths, acting out of our poverty and weakness so that it is God, and not us, who gets the glory?  

Of course, that is a challenge for us. As humans we like to think we are self-sufficient and the idea of relying on anyone else, even God, can be scary. This brings us back to Lent. When we give things up for Lent, we often give up luxuries, things that are not vital to living and will not really hurt, like alcohol, chocolate, or caffeine. The same is often true of taking on new things or giving a donation to a charity; we tend to give only as far as we can afford from our own strengths and resources. Lent can offer us the chance to learn to trust God in the small things. Giving up chocolate for 40 days and donating the money you save to charity is a small step, and may sometimes feel tokenistic when compared to the challenges many people face in daily life. But maybe it is a start towards learning to rely on God as we act for justice in everyday life.