I have run into many questions on Lent since last Wednesday. As a cultural phenomenon, Lent has pretty much lost steam. That juggernaut of cultural propulsion, the Catholic Church, has forced an acknowledgement of its beginning. But the impact of Lent on most Americans is a small dent - there is very little impact.
I think the reason for Lent's decline is the cultural fragmentation that is at its height in the United States today.
One of my friends was talking about Lent in his blog. He's a programmer, distanced from a Catholic upbringing. He was musing on the significance of giving things up while divorced from a cultural context. He thought giving things up was important, but found he didn't understand the rest of the picture. Could you give up the "trappings" of Lent and just keep the practice of giving things up? He described it as a piece of code in a program that you suspect is useless, but that you are afraid to delete because it might serve some function.
Such is culture.
A question like, "what is the significance of Lent?" is fraught with dangers. The answer lies at the heart of Christianity. I was at a gathering last Friday where someone mentioned that giving things up for Lent "seemed negative". Well, it is negative - or maybe it's positive... What is good and what is bad? Jesus stood all of that on its head for us Christians. We are witnessing to the ascendance of the soul over the body - and reminding the body that it can't always have its own way. Is that negative? No, I don't think so. If you think the soul is more important than the body, then it's pretty damn positive.
Anyhoo, another thing that strikes me is the importance of the cultural context. It's almost impossible to fraternize with non-observers during Lent and to remain observant. Lent can almost seem more like a marathon of explanation and apology than of self-denial. It takes a great deal of footwork to explain why you're not having ice cream without sounding like an asshole. Especially if, like me, you have a reputation for eating and drinking heavily. I've already ruffled several sets of feathers and we're not even a week in.
Here's a newsflash - most people in our culture are so abandoned to their appetites that they don't even know it. They couldn't fast even if they wanted to - but they are neither aware or desirous of such a situation. Witness the glut of diet programs that tacitly assume that no one in their right mind would actually eat less and exercise more to lose weight. You see, it's gotta be a trick - it can't actually be done by an effort of the will.
Anyways, I'm sounding preachy again. I have friends who have promised to stop me if this happens.
Here's a motivation for the worldly like myself. That first sip of coffee after the forty days is going to kick ass. Just the smell off of the top of the cup is going to send me into ecstasy - never mind my first scotch.