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Beliefnet News

Age-Old Lent Gets a 21st-Century Makeover

(RNS) For Janis Galvin fasting for Lent has long meant saying no to candy for the 40 days before Easter. But when the season begins this year on March 9, it’s apt to mean something more: walking when she’d rather drive, for instance, or turning the thermostat way down.
Galvin, an Episcopalian, will join with about 1,000 others who’ve signed up for the 2011 Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast, a daily regimen for reducing energy consumption and fighting global warming.
Lent is getting a makeover, especially in some Protestant traditions where it hasn’t always drawn strong interest. The carbon fast is one of several initiatives aimed at reinvigorating Lent by linking themes of fasting and abstention to wider social causes.
“It’s exciting because it’s not just suffering” for its own sake, said Galvin, who lives in Everett, Mass. “It’s doing good.”
For the first time, the United Methodist Church is urging its 7.8 million U.S. members to refrain from drinking alcohol during Lent. Teetotaling is familiar turf in United Methodism, and now Lent provides a framework to consider the role alcohol plays in individual lives, families and society, according to Cynthia Abrams of the UMC’s General Board of Church & Society.
“To ask United Methodists to give up alcohol for Lent is provocative because we like to think United Methodists don’t drink,” said Abrams, who works on alcohol and other health issues. “We decided … to confront the elephant in the room by doing something provocative and engaging in conversation about it throughout Lent.”
In the United Kingdom, the Christian Vegetarian Association is aiming to revive the ancient Christian practice of foregoing meat during Lent. (Many Orthodox Christians still eat a vegan diet in Lent). It’s self-denial for a purpose, organizers say, noting how vegetarian diets improve health, enhance animal welfare and reduce strain on the environment.
Fasting from anything is never an easy sell in a culture that values convenience, according to Jim Antal, who heads the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.
But as a spiritual practice, he said, personal sacrifice can be a key driver in advancing larger movements.
“We’re trying to deal with the mingling of individual Lenten disciplines with social change,” said Antal, whose conference is spearheading the carbon fast. “And that is precisely what will save the Earth — if individuals who begin to get it… begin to say, ‘Gosh, I need to change my life, and I need to become an activist.”‘
Lent has never been a strong tradition among evangelicals, with some worried that it smacks of presumptuous efforts to earn God’s favor. But some are finding that new types of Lenten fasting might serve a useful purpose in a world coarsened by electronic media.
Adam Rick of Beverly, Mass., will be fasting from Facebook and otherwise minimizing time spent online. It’s a bid to temper the perceived vanity that comes with constantly gratifying urges and trying to get noticed.
“So much of the dysfunction in our relationships has to with exactly that — we’re not happy because we didn’t get our way, or we didn’t get recognized,” said Rick, who’s exploring a call to priesthood in the Anglican Church in North America. “Facebook just feeds that fire if it’s not used carefully and intentionally. Sometimes just taking a step back from it is helpful for me.”
Some observers of evolving Lenten practices see them as steps — albeit small ones — in the right direction for a culture that tends to bristle at the idea of voluntary self-denial.
“In a culture as consumer-oriented and materialistic as ours, it is not surprising that churches are seeking in small ways to remind us of those obsessions,” said Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist of religion at Princeton University. “These are welcome developments, even though they may be rather feeble.”
– G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Religion News Service

  • nnmns

    I like the Carbon Fast idea.

  • Lori Trow

    We’ve been practicing this in the Roman Catholic faith for years. We are encouraged to fast or abstain from something of great worth, or to donate our time to charity work or cause (monetary alone does not qualify). The purpose as I understand is to self sacrifice to offer up something of value in honor of our Savior. Nice article!

  • pagansister

    Yes, nnmns, it is a good idea. Also, while you’re walking instead of driving you can walk off the calories you get from consuming the chocolate you used to give up for Lent! I’d rather eat the chocolate—and do the walking.

  • Charles Cosimano

    When I was a boy we were fond of saying the only thing we gave up for lent was lent. And it’s still the only thing.

  • jestrfyl

    I have suggested from time to time an alternative to the Carbon fast (in that it is now almost impossible to do). That is calculating the approx value of a daily Carbon footprint and making it a donation to a Green Cause. We are thoroughly dependant on oil products and by-products; including energy, packaging, products (like the housing and components of computers)and transportation. A total Fast would make even the Amish look like TechnoPhiles.

  • Henrietta22

    The object is to self-deny yourself of something you eat, drink, or do….as a gift to God. Why not give up cell-phones, twittering, etc. for lent? There would be less accidents on the road, gossip would defintely be slowed down, and if we stayed off our computers and mail stress would stop for at least a little while, and God would be so happy. 😉

  • Jonathan Hall

    Absolutely none of this is news.
    The idea of ‘giving something up for Lent’ is perfectly valid, but has never, ever, in my lifetime, my parents’ lifetimes, or their parents’ lifetimes, been seen as the only possibility. Doing something positive is always an option—not part of a “21st century makeover.’ What a tedious thesis!
    The problem with your article is that, in essence, you announce that Christianity has stopped being Christianity and started being a branch of the Green movement. Reducing one’s carbon footprint *may* be a good Lenten discipline, if undertaken in an authentic religious spirit. So few people nowadays—at least, so few religion writers—understand the distinction, or the priorities.
    Going vegan for Lent is admirable, but chiefly because of its benefits for the soul. And by the way, the Orthodox are not vegan, because their Lenten fasting rules expressly permit fish without backbone. So unless you don’t care about squid and mussels, the Orthodox are not vegan. And there are “fish, wine, and oil” days when fish with backbone are permitted (for example, the Annunciation). So if a tuna salad is your idea of vegan, fine. I disagree.
    A final note: the Muslims do not attempt to “update” and thereby “justify” Ramadan by saying it’s all about community and the environment. Yes, the nighttime meals are a joyous occasion. Yes, fasting is good for the environment. But Muslims fast on Ramadan because God commands it. Likewise, Christians fast during Lent in emulation of our blessed Savior’s forty-day fast in the desert—in remembrance of Noah’s forty days in the Ark—in token of the Chosen People’s forty years’ search for the Promised Land. We fast because the Apostles fasted. We fast because Christ commends the practice to us.
    To fasting are joined, by Christ’s command, prayer and almsgiving. All positive during Lent grow from these supreme priorities. We require no other justification for our existence.
    A blessed, holy, Christian Lent to you all.

  • Jonathan Hall

    Sorry. The penultimate paragraph should say “All positive actions during Lent..”

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