Where did this American Lent come from?

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat, or anyone who has read GetReligion for a year or so, knows that one of the biggest faith-based challenges that journalists face is the demand -- year after year -- to come up with valid, insightful stories about religious holidays. It's impossible to avoid the big days, of course. It's almost as hard to avoid the other seasons that everyone talks about, even if they do not affect traffic or change the decorations at the local shopping mall.

Take, for example, Lent.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of Lent is that -- like Advent and Nativity Lent -- some people take the season very seriously and others all but ignore it. Lent is a big deal, of course, in the ancient churches of the East and West, but it also is taken seriously by some believers in Anglican, Lutheran and, yes, even by some Baptists (sort of).

However, when most American readers think of Lent they think of, well, one thing.

Over at "On Faith," editor Elizabeth Tenety offered this short piece in an attempt to open up a Washington Post discussion of this topic. She begins here:

Christians mark Ash Wednesday February 22, a holy day that launches the liturgical season of Lent, the 40 days of prayer and repentance before Easter Sunday.

Traditionally during Lent, Christians fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstain from eating meat on Fridays, out of reverence for Jesus’ death on Good Friday.

Actually, I would note that the second largest flock in global Christianity -- the various Eastern Orthodox churches -- do not observe Ash Wednesday. For us, Great Lent begins this coming Sunday night (the calendars of East and West are one week apart this year at Easter and Pascha) with a rite called Forgiveness Vespers, which asks each member of the parish to seek face-to-face forgiveness from every other member of the parish. For an explanation of how that works, please click here. During the entire Lenten season, and Holy Week, the Orthodox are asked to fast from all meat and all dairy products, and many strive to do so.

Meanwhile, all of this raises questions for me: Do the Eastern-Rite Catholic Churches observe Ash Wednesday and/or Forgiveness Vespers? One? Both? Also, are the Lenten fasting traditions of Eastern-Rite Catholics different than those of Catholics in Western Rites? I am sure that one or more GetReligion readers will know some answers.

Meanwhile, back to Tenety:

Many people also give up a vice during Lent as an attempt to remove barriers to God. Others use Lent as a time to buckle down on long-abandoned New Years resolutions, giving up favorite foods or swear words. ...

Are you giving something up for Lent? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter with #givingitup.

So here is my journalistic question. While it is true that "many people" give up "one thing" during Lent, this is not a fasting tradition that is -- as far as I have been able to discover -- found in the teachings of any particular church. In fact, I have been trying to trace this strange notion's origins for several years. For example:

... Millions of Americans in a variety of churches follow an informal tradition in which they choose to fast from “one thing” -- such as chocolate or soft drinks -- during Lent. This practice may be linked to a passage in the sixth century monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which states:

“During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God ... something above his prescribed measure. Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter.”

However, note that this "add something" concept asks the believer to add one thing, at least, on top of the ordinary Lenten traditions. In other words, the "one thing" is not supposed to take the place of observing traditional Lenten disciplines. It's a both-and situation.

A few years ago, I wrote an entire Scripps Howard News Service column on this issue, which involved talking to a number of Catholic apologists. Here is a slice of that:

“There are Catholics who don’t practice their faith and they may not be up on what it really means to observe Lent,” said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization for the Catholic Answers (Catholic.com) website. “But active Catholics know there is supposed to be real fasting and abstinence involved in Lent.

“The question is whether they want to do more, to add something extra. That is what the ‘one thing’ was supposed to be about.”

Lenten traditions have evolved through the ages. For centuries, Catholics kept a strict fast in which they ate only one true meal a day, with no meat or fish. Over time, regulations were eased to allow small meals at two other times during the day.

Today, Catholics are supposed to observe a strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent and Good Friday at the end. In most parishes they are urged to avoid meat on Fridays. However, Lenten guidelines have been eased so much in recent decades that even dedicated Catholics may become confused.

And then there is this "one thing" theory, which I have heard voiced by several priests:

It’s also possible ... that the “give up one thing” tradition grew out of another understandable practice. Parents and Catholic teachers have long urged small children — who cannot keep a true fast for health reasons -- to do what they can during Lent by surrendering something symbolic, such as candy or a favorite television show.

But if grownups stop practicing the true Lenten disciplines, then the “one thing” standard is what remains.

So here is my question for GetReligion readers. If you put together the logical search terms, it's pretty obvious that this "give up" "one thing" for Lent concept is now what the season means to most journalists, as well as believers.

But did anyone out there see coverage that tried to make any sense out of this Tradition Lite? If you saw really good Lent stories, or really bad ones, please let us know in the comments pages. Go for it.

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