My Episcopalian friends--I'll call them Sharon and Greg--are giving up sex for Lent. Not chocolate, not caffeine: sex.

Lent, the 40-day church season that begins this week, is a time of fasting and repentance--a somber and reflective season that precedes the celebrations of Easter. Christians who observe a Lenten fast are both honoring and reenacting Jesus' forty-day fast in the desert. At the end of those 40 days, Satan came to tempt Jesus--and the Gospel of Luke suggests that Jesus was able to withstand the Devil's temptations not despite, but in part because, of his fasting. Somehow his fast made him stronger.

Modern-day Christians interpret "fast" broadly. Many Catholic communities retain the practice of giving up meat during some days in Lent. Orthodox communities abstain from meat, dairy and egg products. Most Protestants, like me, undertake a fast that is either, depending on your perspective, more creative, or too lenient--like abstaining from alcohol or TV. This year, I am giving up wine and cheese. And also, at the urging of my spiritual director, I'm trying to get to know my neighbors. (Today, it is popular for people to "take on" a Lenten discipline, like daily prayer, or neighbor-knowing, instead of or in addition to giving something up.)

Which brings us back to Sharon and Greg. Forty days without making the beast with two backs.

Actually, Sharon is quick to point out to me that it's not quite as bleak as all that. Traditionally, Christians break their Lenten fasts on Sundays, since Sundays are meant to be festive--the celebration of Jesus' resurrection trumps the strictures of Lenten discipline. So, says Sharon, she and her husband will have, um, sex dates on the weekends.

I did a little digging for her, and also found that there is a monastic tradition of breaking one's Lenten fast at the hour of the none prayers--that is, three o'clock. "Maybe ya'll can take late lunch breaks from work?" I suggest.

But, of course, all this seeking to evade the fast itself rather misses the point. Why didn't Sharon and Greg just give up sugar?

'I Think Sharon Is Not Crazy'

It turns out there's not much precedent in church tradition for Lenten sex fasting per se--but this is because in the early church, there were already all sorts of prohibitions about conjugal sex. Many church fathers preferred singleness to marriage, and only grudgingly acknowledged marriage as a viable station for a Christian life. Why the skittishness about conjugal sex? According to Peter Brown's magisterial book "The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity," anxiety about sex stemmed from a number of sources--a disdain for women; a belief that bodily discipline and even bodily suffering were good for leading a righteous Christian life; and, perhaps most pervasive, a Gnostic anxiety about bodies and bodily desire. To read Brown's account, married Christians might have only had sex a few times a year. A Lenten fast would have been overkill. (But, as I told Sharon, having sex on Sundays is very much in accord with traditional Judaism. Married couples are awarded rabbinic brownie points for having sex on the Sabbath, because making love is seen as a robust fulfillment of the Sabbath command to be joyful.)

Still, there is scriptural imprimatur for a fast like Sharon and Greg's. In his epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul makes clear that husbands and wives can choose to take a mutually agreed upon break from sex--provided that such a break is only temporary.

I think Sharon is not crazy.

Actually, her fast from sex gets to the heart of Lenten discipline. We give up something for Lent to align ourselves with the heart, will, and experience of Jesus. Fasting teaches us that we are not utterly subject to our bodily desires. And in sated and overfed America, fasting reminds us, sharply, of the poor. True, in a world shot through with discomfort about the body--or in a marriage plagued by some Gnostic anxiety that sex is not really good--a Lenten fast from sex may not be a good idea at all. I would not advise such a thing for my friends June and Bob, for example. June was raped 5 years ago, and is still pretty far from a place of seeing sex--even sex with her wonderful and dishy husband--as a good, enjoyable, holy thing.

Should Married Couples Walk the Chaste and Narrow?

I came home from my breakfast with Sharon and casually asked my husband what he was thinking of giving up for Lent. "Do you think we should give up sex?" I asked. He cackled. We married three weeks after my mother died, and with bereavement has come a predictable coma of my libido--the body in mourning shutting down all unnecessary drives and desires like the desire to sleep with your brand-new husband. A Lenten fast from sex, it seems, was probably not what the doctor (or shrink, or spiritual director) would order for us this year.

But in a society that is utterly sex-saturated, Lenten sexual abstinence may be indicated. Indeed, it is only in the last few decades that many of us have come to look askance at disciplining our sexuality. Birth control has allowed married and unmarried people alike to be much more cavalier about indulging sexual desire. Even Christians, who spend so much energy trying to help unmarried folks walk the chaste straight and narrow, don't think much about disciplining sex between spouses (the logic, I think, goes something like this: we've spent all these premarital years being disciplined; now, on the other side of our marriage vows, sexual discipline is a non sequiter.)

We fast during Lent because fasting gets our attention. It is a necessary tool for rousing us from our day-to-day sleepwalking.

We fast during Lent because when we willingly give up something we delight in but do not, strictly speaking, need, we come closer to participating in, understanding, and reverencing the self-emptying act that is Christ on the Cross.

The very discomfort--the uneasy chuckles and tight smiles-that a Lenten sex fast inspires may be precisely the reason that Sharon and Greg's idea is such a good one.

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