While today is being celebrated worldwide by many as Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday – a day of decadence prior to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent – some are taking a new approach to the traditional 40 days of self-denial, prayer and personal reflection in the post-modern era.
The Lenten season, which a recent Religion News Service article article notes “hasn't always drawn strong interest” among some Protestant denominations, has taken on new meaning by linking fasting, abstention and prayer to social causes. The article, “Age-old Lent gets a 21st-century makeover,” highlights various ways the concept of “fasting” is being lived out among Christians in the new millennium.
Over 4,000 people have joined in the 2011 Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast in an effort to reduce energy consumption and fight global warming. Of the carbon fast, Janis Galvin, an Episcopalian who lives in Everett, Mass., said, "It's exciting because it's not just suffering for its own sake … It's doing good."
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.' "
Along with this initiative, 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.
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."
Conventional ways of fasting and abstaining at Lent haven't disappeared. Sixty percent of American Catholics – even those who seldom attend church – abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, according to Mark Gray, senior research associate at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
And for others, where Lent has taken on a more reflective or study-oriented nature, new resources are available to assist individual groups and individuals in their spiritual pursuits. Identification with Jesus, specifically his earthly ministry and events that led to his crucifixion (and resurrection,) is also part of the Lenten tradition.
To that end, the Living the Questions franchise has released a two-DVD set - "Saving Jesus: Redux" - that, while not specifically intended as a curriculum for Lent, would be a welcome addition to a church or small group Lenten series.
Divided into 12 segments, “Saving Jesus” offers a 20-minute video introduction to a topic, scripture readings and suggested discussion topics aimed at helping participants develop a greater understanding of Jesus.
The United Church of Christ Stillspeaking Writers' Group has also released a new resource, "The Jesus Diaries: Who Jesus is to Me." Again, while not meant exclusively as a Lenten guide, this booklet contains nine reflections that provoke the question, as the Rev. Martin B. Copenhaver recalls in the introduction, “How would you describe your relationship with Jesus?”
Whether Lenten practices of self-denial and reflection take modern or historic forms, rooted in spiritual development or concerns for global justice, there's no dispute that the party of Mardi Gras, for many, will be met tomorrow by the challenging reality of Christian discipleship.
Portions of this article were provided by Religion News Service and G. Jeffrey MacDonald.