One thing wrong with that 'give up one thing for Lent' thing

I don't know precisely when it happened, but somewhere during the past decade or two Lent became cool for all kinds of people, including Godbeat reporters. Lent wasn't just for Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox (whoever they were) anymore. Lent was for edgy free-church Protestants, bookish evangelicals and all of the mainline Protestants, not just the Episcopalians. You had church leaders handing out Lenten meditation booklets and holding Lenten retreats and maybe even adding a mid-week Lenten service for the truly die-hard worshippers.

Lent was both cool and innovative. In other words, all of this new create-your-own Lent stuff was news. And at the center of it all was one central theme: What are you going to give up for Lent?

This was the big question, of course, the question that linked the new Lent, supposedly, to the old Catholic Lent.

Let's look at a typical mini-feature earlier this week built on this concept (there were many to choose from), care of The Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The 40-day period of Lent starts today with Ash Wednesday as many Christian denominations give up something to recognize the sacrifices of Jesus Christ.

An analysis of Twitter revealed the most-mentioned Lenten sacrifices this year. Chocolate was number one, followed by alcohol, Twitter, social networking and swearing. Other popular items like forgoing sweets, soda, coffee and fast food also made the top 20.

But not all the Lenten tweets were serious. A high number of people posted they were passing up on Lent or giving up “giving up things.” (Read the top 100 here)

In you’re having trouble thinking of something to give up for Lent, the website can help. They suggest not watching television, smoking, using credit cards, gossiping and lying for 40 days.

Of course, the story noted that people can add some kind of (spiritual) discipline during Lent. What about "exercising, volunteering, being on time and staying positive." Apparently going to confession, traditional forms of fasting, increased prayers, almsgiving, Bible study, etc., etc., didn't make the list.

The mini-feature ended with a reader participation note: "So do you participate in Lent? What are you giving up or adding?"

So what is missing from this picture?

First of all, the story never mentions the actual spiritual disciplines associated with Lent in the Eastern and Western churches. Click here for some Catholic materials and here for a look at the radically traditional practices followed by many active members of Eastern Orthodox churches.

The story also assumes that the whole "give up one thing for Lent" regime is, well, real and has something to do with Christian tradition. Lots of people, including journalists, assume that this is THE rule for Lent in the Christian tradition.

Simply stated: It isn't.

Several years ago, I tried to find out where this concept came from and, over and over, I heard people say that they always thought that "this was what Catholics do." Actually, no. I kind of assumed that this individualistic twist sounded, well, like the Anglican thing to do. Nope. Anglican church historians I called said, in effect, "Don't blame us."

Now, I realize that quite a few modern (and postmodern) Catholics are not sure -- decades after Vatican II -- what part of the ancient Western church traditions Catholicism retained and what parts were trimmed or eliminated during that liturgical earthquake. As it turns out, the canon laws of the church still contain specifics. Here is a chunk or two of that column:

“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 ( 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.

But what about that "give up one thing for Lent" thing?

The roots of the tradition may date back to the sixth century and the influential monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which added a wrinkle to the usual Lenten guidelines.

“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,” states the Rule. “Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter.”

Note that this was not meant to cancel out the actual disciplines of Lent. This was an EXTRA discipline on top of the traditional ones.

So we still don't know, for sure, there the omnipresent "one thing" rule came from or how it came to be the American cultural norm -- the kind of thing that journalists don't even need to explain in their stories. The "give up one thing for Lent" thing is just assumed to be accurate.

Akin (along with several other Catholics I interviewed) did have a theory about the rise of this practice among modern Catholics and, thus, the news media):

It’s also possible, he said, 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.

Bingo. And the "give up one thing for Lent" thing is so, so much fun. And it's so, well, American.

So readers: Did any of you see a story about Lent in a mainstream media outlet that either (a) mentioned the source of the "one thing" rule or (b) actually discussed the real, traditional disciplines of Lent? I predict -- because there are excellent Godbeat reporters working out there -- some of the latter. But the former? Were there any miracles?

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