In my latest “In Good Faith” article for the Hingham Journal I write about the “poster boy” of Lenten disciplines — giving up chocolate. I give it up every year for Lent because I’m incredibly virtuous. And because I can’t stand chocolate.
Death by Chocolate
I always give up chocolate for Lent. I can’t claim super-human willpower or an unnaturally pious existence. The truth is I don’t like chocolate. I’m not allergic to it; it doesn’t make me break out in hives. I just don’t like it. And in the eyes of most red-blooded Americans, this makes me suspect. When I politely decline an after-dinner thin mint or a mid-day Hershey Bar, people give me strange looks. Some literally back away in horror as if they’ve encountered a leper.
But this doesn’t stop me from dramatically turning down offers of fudge and chocolate chip muffins during the Church’s season of penitence. Ah, the virtue of it all! Just don’t ask me to give up Fritos.
This week the Church throughout the world begins the penitential season of Lent. Christians connect with Jesus’ 40 days spent in the wilderness; a period that takes place immediately after his baptism by John in the Jordan River and just before he begins his public ministry. It is a time of self-denial and repentance; an opportunity to return to the basics of faith while taking stock of our life’s priorities. In a sense it’s the spiritual equivalent of a spring cleaning; we seek to eradicate the bad habits or apathy that has slowly crept into our lives and replace this with a healthier, God-centered approach to life. People often return to church after a hiatus or rededicate themselves to the life of the spirit.
Giving up chocolate is, of course, the Lenten discipline’s equivalent of a poster child. Who hasn’t tried to give up chocolate for Lent? And who hasn’t failed? But this Lenten cliché does draw us into a deeper point about our spiritual lives. Specific Lenten practices are great. But they must be made in the context of the God of all grace. God still loves us even when we sneak a chocolate chip cookie. God still loves us even when we fall short in our Lenten disciplines and in our lives. Perhaps this divine forgiveness is the heart of the Christian faith; the reason we bother at all with entering into the season of Lent. Failing to give up our guilty pleasures shouldn’t lead to guilt. Surely that’s not the point of keeping a holy Lent.
Each year, the great Lenten debate centers upon whether to give something up or take something on. The general consensus is that giving something up is “old school” while taking something on is more devotional in nature. I don’t believe these two are mutually exclusive. Why not give up red meat and dedicate yourself to saying some prayers every morning?
Indeed giving up chocolate or caffeine (not a chance!) or anything else gets a bad rap. Giving up something for Lent can be a wonderful spiritual discipline. Like fasting, it is an act of self-denial. But even more than this, it can set our hearts on God. The emptiness can be a physical reminder that our needs can only be satisfied through faith in Jesus Christ. The Ash Wednesday invitation to observe a holy Lent, calls us to do so “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” In other words, a balanced blend of giving up and taking on.
Another challenge exists for those seeking to keep Lenten disciplines. If “The 12 Days of Christmas” is the Church’s equivalent of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” then Lenten disciplines are the sacred versions of New Year’s resolutions. There’s nothing wrong with a New Year’s resolution of course. Nearly everyone resolves to lose weight, exercise more or amend their spending habits (how’s that going for you so far?). Unfortunately, these resolutions rarely have anything to do with our spiritual lives, the true source of a healthy, happy and fulfilling existence. If the season of Lent precipitates a new spiritual discipline and brings us closer to the heart of Jesus, then thanks be to God.
As for me, I’ll be giving up chocolate again this Lent. Yes, the smell of it makes my stomach turn. And I’m fairly certain the classic dessert “Death by Chocolate” might actually kill me. So it’s not much of a cross to bear. Here’s hoping your own Lenten discipline draws you ever-deeper into relationship with the one who was tempted in the wilderness and yet did not sin.