I didn’t grow up giving things up for Lent. In high school I learned there was a tradition of remembering the uncertainty and discomfort Jesus went through, by giving up something we loved for Lent. The forty days of Lent also symbolize people joining Jesus on his journey through the desert for forty days before beginning his ministry.
I remember thinking giving things up was a funny tradition. I would always give up something easy – chocolate, or soda, which I rarely consumed anyway. For myself and most other people I knew, Lent was treated as a renewed New Year’s Resolution. We’d give up something we knew was bad for us for the sake of making us healthier.
It was a Rabbi in seminary who was able to teach me what Lent was actually about. “I don’t get why you choose what you give up for Lent,” she said aloud one day. I asked what she meant. “Jesus didn’t get to choose what he gave up. He was tempted in the desert for forty days. If you want to be more accurate, shouldn’t you have someone else pick what you give up?” That’s when I realized the flaw in our understanding of Lent. If our goal in fasting and giving up luxuries was to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, then giving up something we decide it’s good to do without anyway isn’t going to cut it. Anything that we ourselves are willing to give up isn’t going to be in alignment with Jesus, because Jesus didn’t decide what He Himself was going to give up. He just followed the call and accepted the hardship that came with it.
So, for this Lent, what if we don’t decide for ourselves what we we’re going to fast over? What if we turned to a person outside our tradition, even an enemy, and asked what we should give up (within reason)? Or what if we turned to a mentor or respected teacher, and asked them for a Lenten challenge? Maybe two people could make a pact, choosing each other’s commitment and holding one another accountable. The choices of another may be difficult to bear, but it may be a richer choice than what any of us would choose for ourselves.
Ultimately, we may feel more aligned with the path of Jesus’ uncertain and intimidating walk towards the cross.