What are you doing for Lent?
What are you giving up for Lent? This was the question one often heard back in the day, as they say. Parents would ask it of their children, and a spiritual director might ask you The assumption was that one gave up something during Lent–candy or cookies when we were children; smoking or whiskey when we were adults. I even heard of couples who gave up marital sex for these forty days. This was over and above the official rules for Lent: Only one full meal a day, the other two meals not being allowed together to make a full meal. Meat only once a day. No eating between meals. Sundays, of course, were excepted.
The celebration of Lent, in no small part because there were official rules, was a communal thing. (The “women’s magazines”–Women’s Day and Family Circle–would have cover stories about creative ways to cook fish–clearly aimed at the tens of thousands of Catholics who would be observing the Lenten discipline.) I suppose the emphasis was negative–what are you giving up?–but we were also urged to more positive things–attendance at daily Mass went up significantly during Lent, as well as participation in popular devotions, especially the Stations of the Cross. I don’t remember much about the third element–almsgiving, service of the poor.
Then, after Vatican II, came the relaxation of the Lenten rules. I remember as a young priest telling the people that the Church would no longer be treating them as children, telling them what they had to do for Lent, but would leave it up to their decision what they would do. This greatly oversimplified things, I have long since recognized. I wonder if something wasn’t lost by our in effect doing away with any communal obligations, that is, things that we all did (or didn’t do) together. Does Lent still have the communal religious significance that, say, Ramadan has for Muslims, or Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for Jews? Should it have it?