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Why “secular Lent” misses the point

“Lent is not about having your best life now.”

Glitter Ashes for Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday is a time of penance, prayer, and reflection.
Evelyn Hockstein/Washington Post/Getty Images

This Wednesday marks the beginning of the penitential period of Lent: one of the most important, and most misunderstood, periods in the Christian religious calendar.

While many non-Christians participate in Christmas festivities, even if just vaguely related to the occasion — Lent remains unobserved even by many Christians.

Lent is the approximately monthlong period that leads up to Easter, commemorating Jesus Christ’s temptation by the devil in the wilderness, his subsequent crucifixion, and finally, on Easter Sunday, his resurrection.

It is a period of fasting, penitence, and prayer for Christians around the world. It is predominately observed by Catholics (and the Orthodox, albeit on a slightly different calendar), but Christians of all denominations can and do participate.

About a quarter of Americans observe Lent (including 61 percent of Catholics, and 20 percent of Protestants), according to a 2017 Lifeway poll. But at the same time, in some corners of the Internet, Lent has become secularized, reimagined as another opportunity for a kind of spiritual wellness “cleanse” (whether of food, drink, or social media habits), a second chance at kickstarting those neglected New Year’s resolutions.

Lent is, in other words, simultaneously sidelined by many ostensibly practicing Christians and appropriated by the secular world.

In 2013, a group of atheist bloggers observed Lent and wrote about the experience. That year, the New York Times tracked Lent’s wider popularity among secular adults, including some who had left the Christian tradition behind but wanted to stay in touch with their roots. One source told the Times he saw it as an opportunity for “discipline and self-improvement.”

Like yoga or meditation, Lent has, for some, become divorced from its explicitly religious roots. This tension reflects a wider cultural issue: What should the role of Lent be in a society deeply uncomfortable with self-deprivation for its own sake, one that increasingly focuses on “positivity” and “self-improvement”?

Is Lent about self-improvement, or self-denial? What can our cultural approach to one of the world’s most somber religious observances tell us about our attitude to death, denial, and sadness?

What is Lent for, anyway?

Lent is far less obvious a period than Advent for secularization. Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, suggested that while holidays like Christmas provide opportunity for celebration and familial togetherness, the demands of Lent — a period of self-deprivation and reflection — are far less desirable.

“Lent is not about having your best life now,” McConnell told Lifeway’s blog. “Those who observe it believe they are giving up things they want in order to focus on what God wants. There’s little popular appeal in that.”

At the same time, for those who do celebrate Lent, traditional forms of abstention — giving up alcohol or sweets, say — are giving way to “fasts” more suited to the digital age. In fact, in 2014, a study of Lenten fasts posted on social media found that Twitter was the third most likely vice to be given up. While the nature of the study of course skewed that particular sample, since it’s based on social media posts themselves, it’s nevertheless true that the shape of Lent has started to change with the times. Lent, therefore, encourages believers to reflect on Christ’s life, suffering, and death by turning away from temptations of their own.

This kind of spiritual period is not unique to Christianity. Lent is a period of sorrow, but also of self-reflection, not entirely unlike, say, the period of Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition or Ramadan in the Muslim world.

Its purpose is to help believers come to terms with the more difficult aspects of their faith, and to disentangle themselves from worldly vices or distractions that turn them away from God. Christians are supposed to fast not to “purify” themselves or break themselves of “bad habits,” but to focus on God and, specifically, on Jesus Christ’s divine sacrifice. The dogma of Lent and its outward expressions are inextricable from one another.

After all, Lent is fundamentally not about living a better life, but coming to terms with the inevitability of death, and through it a new life in Christ. On Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Lenten season, Christians are asked to reflect on death and mortality (often, priests will remind participants of a verse modified from the Book of Genesis “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return”) before being anointed with ash.

This ash has a symbolic purpose. They are typically made from burning the ceremonial palm fronds used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday service: symbolically bringing the liturgical calendar full-circle.

The cyclical nature of the liturgical year means that Christians in some sense participate in the life, death and resurrection of Christ: each year, they become part of an eternal story, in which there are times of hope and renewal (Advent, Easter) as well as times of sorrow.

Lent is a difficult, spiritually taxing time of year — and that can rightly make people uncomfortable

Lent’s broadening popularity raises a wider question. What does a period of fasting and penitence mean in an increasingly secular world? In a culture that increasingly prizes positivity and hope, what is the purpose of a period that mandates self-denial and despair?

Some Christians — and even some non-Christians — have found in Lent something akin to “mindfulness:” a chance to use the period to practice self-improvement, which diverges from Lent’s specifically religious roots. One lifestyle blogger, Michelle Jackson, has even called for a “Secular Lent,” envisioning it as a chance to improve her mental health by giving up complaining.

“I’ve noticed that for some reason I feel happier [during Lent],” she writes. “Maybe because I’m turning that frown upside down? I’ll let you know if I continue feeling this happy towards the end of Lent.”

Sites like Popsugar and Women’s Health UK have recast Lent as a kind of 40-day fitness challenge with articles like, “The Calories You’ll Save Giving Up These Foods for Lent” and “How to Actually Stick to Your Lent Goals.”

The practice of secularizing Lent has proved unpalatable for some. The Guardian’s Giles Fraser condemned the practice, writing:

The irony of the secular Lent of giving up chocolate etc is that it turns a period of self-denial into one of self-regard...It makes it all about me, and most especially, the cultivation of my own beauty or sense of worth. This sits rather oddly with the message that most Christians received last Wednesday when they were marked with ash and told that they were going to die: “Know that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s not the sort of encouraging cheery message one finds above the door of the gym or in the pages of those nauseatingly upbeat self-help manuals.

Our culturally conflicted way of looking at Lent — plenty of Christians don’t observe it, but plenty of secular people do — says a lot about how we conceive of sacrifice and self-denial. Its spiritual aspects (we should give up sweets to focus on God) are more difficult to contend with than its practical aspects (we should give up sweets to lose weight).

Lent, fundamentally, is about facing the hardest elements of human existence — suffering, mortality, death. That the season has turned into giving up Twitter shows that we haven’t gotten good at talking about them yet.