I have been promoting a new Lenten discipline to those who will listen (and their numbers are few, I must say). The gist of the suggestion is that instead of "giving something up for Lent," we take something on. I'm not sure that this a ground-breaking idea -- or even all that great a one, according to one friend. But it is my take on Lent.
We begin Lent by reflecting on Jesus' instruction to keep our piety off display. Of course, we follow that us with having ash crosses drafted onto our foreheads.
But Jesus' teaching is to engage in prayer and fasting in a way that does not draw attention to itself. (Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector Â Luke 18.) This is not a call to abandon liturgical displays (yes, I held that position even before I was "high church") or public displays of devotion. Rather, it is a call to integrate the life of faith so that it becomes a reflection of who one is and who one is reflects the faith she professes. To that extent, it doesn't become something unnatural to be flaunted, but something that comes naturally -- like grammar.
Certainly foregoing some of life's joys can be a good thing, a measure of spiritual discipline. To pare down one's pleasure for a while can be a good complement to the reflection and renewal that lie at the heart of Lent.
My problem with giving things up for Lent is that that particular spiritual practice seems determined to draw attention to itself. If one gives up a food, e.g., it becomes a strain on partygoing at the same time as it justifies that on religious grounds: "Oh, I'm sorry; I've given coffee up for Lent." or "I can't eat that dessert; I've given up chocolate for Lent." As a host (yes, I do, on occasion, host small gatherings during Lent -- or friends drop in and the host in me offers wine and nibbles: I don't see anything wrong with that.), I have been rather put off when people say such things to me. (It sounds so sanctimonious, even from the truly pious.)
In addition, giving something up for Lent often involves doing something that we ought to do anyway and or/doing it only for a limited time. If we give up something harmful (like, ahem, alcohol -- which I would never do), there's little justification: behaviorsot engage in behaviours (including eating and drinking) that harm the body that is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. If it's something we should give up, it's no "sacrifice."
On another line, a friend says that it's good to relinquish something in honor or reflection of what Our Lord gave up for us. But I don't find that so very convincing, either. The Son gave up everything -- not just for a few days, but to the end of his life. His suffering was not an inconvenience. He did not choose what to give up; he accepted the cup that was offered (though not before asking that it be withdrawn). It seems a kind of "cheap discipleship" (to paraphrase Bonhoeffer) to connect our limited disciplining of desire with the kenosis of the Son. Better we should prepare ourselves to accept real suffering in his name when it is offered to us.
Third, that we give up the giving up when Easter turns sends a false message, too. The way we operate, we tend to separate Lent from Easter -- the Passion of Christ from the Resurrection. And I think that's bad theology. Because of the way the life, death, and resurrection of Our Lord all must be kept in constant conversation, to suggest that his suffering is cut off by the resurrection, or that it was a way stop on the route to resurrection, is not helpful. To act out such a sure caesura is bad liturgy and theology.
That's why I prefer to undertake something during Lent. In the first place, by undertaking a new discipline, I fully intend that the practice NOT end with Easter. (I am no superhero, though, so it often falls to the wayside.) I hope by my Lenten discipline to reform my body and spirit to a newer, healthier openness to the life of faith which will continue in Easter and beyond.
This year, I have undertaken to read the Bible more sincerely, more scrupulously, more attentively (this is the big hurdle), more regularly. I am aided in this endeavor by Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses, his newly published, insightful, very careful, and instructional translation of the Torah. I derive great joy from my new practice -- and with his excellent explanatory notes and his sometimes piquant translation, I am awakened from a dulling familiarity to a new engagement with the texts that are so familiar. (Next year, I intend to undertake a more physical regime -- something like exercise. But I wouldn't want to get too radical right off the bat!)
I'm finding this to be a very helpful discipline -- an obvious one, one that ought not have to be "planned" or approached with such intention, I suppose, too. But it gets me back to the main track. Ordinarily, I read voraciously in theology. But that's not the same thing as "searching the Scriptures." I'm a little like the liturgy specialist who reads everything that comes out on liturgy, but never goes to Church. It's a second-hand experience, not the direct engagement that we are intended to have. For my part, I'm out of touch with any part of the Bible I don't have at my memory's fingertips. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor.) This will restore me to engagement with the basic document of the faith (what some Roman Catholic scholars call "ressourcement" -- return to the sources). So, in addition to being important (and perhaps not coincidentally, enjoyable), this is something that reaches forward in my life, to form and inform my life of faith.
On the basis of my experience, I'll continue to encourage people to "take something on" for Lent. But by all means, also give something up if that's your inclination -- but not as a substitute, but as an adjunct to taking something on.