Although I grew up Anglican, we never made much of Lent. We ate pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, and went to a service on Good Friday, before the great celebrations of Easter. But I just thought Lent was the season when Easter eggs appeared in the shops.
At fourteen, I joined the Christian Union at my school. For the first time, I came across Christians of a wide variety of denominations and cultures. In the spring, several of them started asking a strange question: 'What are you giving up for Lent?'
I prevaricated. 'Not sure,' I would reply, 'What are you doing?' Some people were giving up chocolate, or sugar, or television… I wasn't entirely sure of the point, but evidently I was expected to do something. So I said I would give up sugar in tea. That wouldn't be too hard: I didn't much like tea, and we never drank it at home. The only time I had a cup was after the Christian Union meeting.
So I gave up sugar in tea, and found that it tasted better anyway. Not much, but sufficiently that on the rare occasions I've had to drink tea since those days, I have never added sugar.
The following year, I was rather more confident. The first time someone asked about Lent, I said that I was giving up alcohol, cigarettes and sex. As a non-smoking teetotal virgin, this was meant to be a joke… some people laughed; others looked at me, wondering whether this quiet, naïve girl who rarely went to parties had a secret life they knew nothing about.
By the time I was in the sixth form, I had decided with typical teenage arrogance that I was above such things. When asked about Lent, I would shrug slightly, and say I believed we should worship God at all times of year, and that if it was right to give something up, I didn't need set times of year to do so. I still didn't smoke, drink, or sleep around, and could see no reason to give up chocolate, or my favourite TV programs. The theology was all right, I suppose, but my attitude wasn't.
As a young married adult, attending an evangelical Anglican church, I barely noticed Lent. I didn't even remember Shrove Tuesday most years. Once or twice we joined special study groups at our church, but nobody made a big deal of them. It wasn't until we moved to Cyprus, when I was in my late thirties, that I began thinking more about Lent, and what it means.
The concept of a Lenten fast is related to the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. In Cyprus, we learned, the Greek Orthodox Church take this fairly seriously. Devout Orthodox believers give up all meat products; some also abstain from sweets and desserts. The idea is to prepare themselves for the celebration of Easter – to deny themselves, and to give to the poor.
I began to wonder if I should think more about this season. Traditionally, Lent has been used as a concentrated time for self-denial, prayer and focus on what Jesus went through prior to the Crucifixion. Some evangelicals reject the idea, thinking it too 'high church'. But perhaps we have thrown out the baby with the holy water, so to speak; certainly many evangelicals are rediscovering some of the benefits of visual imagery, including the importance of different seasons within the traditional church calendar.
In the UK, many churches follow a system called 'Love Life, Live Lent'. Participating members receive a booklet, which gives a suggestion for each day of Lent. It may be something to encourage family togetherness such as switching off the TV and playing board games for an evening or something more personal such as apologising to someone. It might be an environmental idea, like buying something organic when you wouldn't normally, or a random act of generosity, such as paying more than the price tag for an item in a charity shop.
Most of these suggestions are not overtly spiritual. They're designed for the general churchgoing public, to encourage a small focus each day on something different, and perhaps to think of God a little more while doing so. They may seem trite to some who take Lent more seriously, or pointless to those who ignore it. But the 'Love Life Live Lent' scheme seems to be popular. Last year there were 130,000 participants. If it does nothing else, it should at least result in a few more random acts of kindness.
I thought about doing this myself last year. However, I found that several of the ideas weren't really appropriate in Cyprus, and somehow I wasn't motivated to do something like that on my own. It's best done as a group, for mutual support and encouragement. So I didn't really do anything.
This year, I wondered again if I should make something of Lent. I'm a private kind of person so I don't want to do anything that will stand out. I don't watch TV anyway, and I'm already trying to limit my computer time. I could give up meat, but then I like vegetarian food so much that it would not be any sacrifice. I could give up sugar, but I don't eat much anyway.
We did eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, and will no doubt have Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday. In between, I'm trying to listen to God a little more each day. I decided to use a Lent devotional book that I read through some years ago, with short Scripture passages and relevant, thought-provoking comments for each day. I'm reading through the Psalms, a book I usually tend to dip into rather than reading as a whole. And I'm trying to study a little more Greek and do some focussed writing.
Is it necessary to do anything special during Lent? No. Is it beneficial? I begin to think it may be.