In Theory: Lent stretches out from Catholicism

Lent is the 40-day Catholic ritual of self-sacrifice that began March 1.

While the purpose of Lent is for Catholics to strengthen their relationship with God, many non-Catholics have begun observing Lent, for spiritual and nonspiritual goals alike, writes Sarah Elizabeth Richards for the Los Angeles Times.

From giving up sweets and alcohol to abstaining from social media, many non-Catholics are using Lent to reboot their New Year's resolutions.

"For them, it doesn't have religious symbolism and is a chance to make a new commitment to abandoned New Year's resolutions," said Alissa Zito, who said she also took up daily prayer and community service.

Q: What do you think of the trend? Do you believe giving something up for Lent can lead to long-term change for the better?

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I grew up among buttoned-down Protestants. Many of them quietly gave up something for Lent each year without advertising it. In Presbyterian Sunday school Lenten sacrifice was presented as an option, not a requirement. In high school my observant Jewish classmates brought their Passover lunches with them as symbolic remembrance of the struggles of their forebears (given the quality of some of the cafeteria fare we were served, I didn't see eating matzo for a week as that much of a sacrifice!). I've known people of many faith backgrounds who have voluntarily forsworn meat, alcohol, tobacco or driving cars as personal witness to their spiritual quests and moral commitments.

Religious culture is always syncretic, a mixture of old traditions applied to new conditions. The current trend where individuals adopt Lenten practices though they do not necessarily consider themselves committed Christians exemplifies the ways in which people are making religious rituals pertinent to their lives today, and I think that is mostly for the good. There is a danger of cultural appropriation, in which spiritual adventurers borrow the practices of others as trophies without sharing in the same feeling of reverence that makes the ritual meaningful to longtime adherents. Respecting the religious observations of others by awaiting an invitation, rather than immediately demanding a seat in the front pew, seems the wiser way to pursue interfaith relationships.

Some Unitarian Universalists choose to use Lent as a period for disciplined discernment of the values and choices that hold meaning for them. Striving for appreciation of the many spiritual paths people walk, including traditions of personal sacrifice and recommitment, is part of learning to live in a right relationship with each other and our planet. I am glad to work with Christians who want to apply the wisdom of the Gospel to achieving that appreciation. I hope not to see a season of humble intention become just another commodified commercial holiday.

David L. Hostetter, Ph.D.Vice President, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo HillsLa Crescenta

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While many Catholics include an element of positive spiritual disciplines such as daily scripture readings during Lent, the major Lenten activity is essentially fasting, the willing abstinence from eating some kind of food or engaging in some type of activity. Lent is traditionally practiced over 40 days as a commemoration of Jesus' 40-day period of solitude and fasting before his public ministry. The purpose of Lent, or fasting in general, is for believers to draw personally closer to the Lord.

I believe the trend of Lenten practices among non-Catholics, or even nonbelievers, is completely understandable. Fasting is a biblical concept, given by God for the benefit of man. Because it's from God it's wise. It "works" in life, even in limited, non-faith applications. Those who discover this and practice it benefit from the blessing God has inherently built into it. But like most disciplines, long-term benefit doesn't usually come from one-time performances. Only fasting as a regular habit will be of benefit over the long term. Jesus said, "But seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matthew 6:33). And I suppose that's the heart of Lenten abstinences: giving God priority over everything else in our lives, even cherished food or habits, and as a result enjoying a deeper knowledge of him and closer relationship with him.

Pastor Jon BartaBurbank

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Linking a personal, nonreligious goal to an event such as Lent might lend momentum and deepen commitment to one's purpose. But — although I'm not Catholic and can't speak for them — I believe there is an important distinction between the sacrifice a believing Catholic makes during Lent and the purely secular use of the observance by others.

In a religious context, abstinence through practices such as fasting is designed to draw us closer to God by highlighting our mortal weaknesses and, therefore, our dependence upon him for life and the material blessings that we have. Members of the Mormon church are encouraged to fast for two meals on the first Sunday of each month. This fast is defined as a 24-hour abstinence from food and beverages, including water. Typically, church members begin the fast after the evening meal on Saturday and end it with the evening meal on Sunday. Young children and adults with health problems that would be exacerbated by fasting are not expected to participate.

The purpose of the fast is not to subject ourselves to suffering, but to distance ourselves from preoccupation with our temporal and physical wants and focus on the things of God. We are encouraged to combine the fast with prayer and to seek the Lord's help with a particular need. Usually, the focus of the fast is a personal matter, but church members also might fast for a collective goal, such as the well-being of a member who has a serious illness.

In conjunction with the fast, we are encouraged to donate money, at least the amount we would have spent for the food not eaten, to assist the poor. Many church members donate far more.

I wouldn't criticize non-Catholics who find that observing Lent helps them achieve their goals. In addition to increasing their resolve, it might give them a better understanding of religion and greater empathy for believers. But in my personal view, they are missing the much deeper blessings that come from a sincere and prayerful spiritual observance.

Michael WhiteThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day SaintsLa Crescenta

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Humans are drawn to self-denial for spiritual elevation, to live their ethical or moral concerns, or just for self-improvement. Many things which people try to swear off are clearly less than good for your health except in moderate amounts — like sugar, intoxicants or gossip — so the urge to restrict our own behavior is generally a positive thing.

The Roman Catholic practice of a Lenten sacrifice is said to have started around the 4th or 5th centuries of the common era. But predating Christianity by many, many centuries are major religions in which self-control is a prominent feature, namely Hinduism and Buddhism among others, and even older beliefs involve sacrifices to the spirits of the natural world.

Hinduism and Buddhism both basically call for the obliteration of the ego — no self at all is the ideal.

Vegetarianism is in theory embraced by all Hindus, by some Buddhism sects, and along with veganism is a discipline practiced broadly, if somewhat loosely, these days. I recognize that rejecting meat or other animal products is not always self-denial, but rather a healthy and potentially delicious diet, without any cruelty to earth's non-human lives. Yet I can't help but think many practitioners feel they are missing out, else why would there be demand for vegan cheese and pretend hamburger?

New Year's resolutions are a secular version of sacrifice that many, myself included, embrace to our benefit. Absorbing our existing tendencies is the genius of one of the cleverest of human inventions — religion.

Roberta MedfordAtheistMontrose

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Lent is a Christian tradition established centuries before the east/west split (what are now the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics) and still further back from the western split between the Roman Catholics and their Reformation Protestants. All share the same ancient origin, but the outworking of our spiritual calendars and the peculiar traditions associated differ.

The reason Protestants are more casual with Lent is because it's an un-Scriptural custom, and we don't accept any higher authority. Therefore we reject Roman Catholic declarations about it being mortal sin to eat meat on Lenten Fridays, and we will contrarily enjoy St. Patrick's Day (Friday) with copious amounts of corned beef and Irish nachos.

The Bible states "Some people think that a certain day is more important than other days, while others think that all days are the same. We each should firmly make up our own minds" (Romans 14:5 GNT). So we aren't bound to any religious "pontifications," but we still hold in common this Easter-time ritual that aims toward Christ's sacrifice for our sin. What we decide is personal, though churches ought to be mindful of the season and provide freewill opportunities to participate.

As for giving up things for Lent, it's sadly humorous what people will relinquish, and often it's nothing other than what they should be doing anyway as Biblically commanded for all the year. If someone quits profanity or gossip, only to rekindle these sins afterward, they have squandered Lent and their faith is a mockery. Rather than sacrificing what's already condemned, I'd suggest strengthening things we should desire, like a more intense prayer life. Give up more time to sit with God; it would be life-changing. A good habit is established somewhere between 20 and 60 days. Forty is right in the middle, and that's Lent's duration, so if you're moved to utilize the season for real spiritual growth, then improve something that may be currently anemic in your faith. Fasting is popular because not shoving food in our face at every urge makes us less like Pavlov's dog and more like people whose spirits control our flesh. Perhaps this is where the pagans can jump on the bandwagon, by riding the religious wave of self-improvement — even though truly meaningful improvement begins with God.

Rev. Bryan A. GriemTujunga

Copyright © 2017, Burbank Leader

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Article In Theory: Lent stretches out from Catholicism compiled by www.latimes.com

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