On this, Shrove Tuesday, I find myself doing what I do each time Lent arrives. I wonder what I should give up. Because that is what you do in Lent. You give something up.
There is an irony widely noted that where once cupboards were shed of their excessive ingredients, making pancakes to use up the leftovers, now we hit the shops to buy the very ingredients, and the lemon juice will linger in its novelty packaging until next year.
We reach for the thing we do too much of and give it up. It might be sweets, it might be caffeine, maybe alcohol or social media.
We don’t give up things for good. We fast from them. It’s a way of acknowledging the inherent goodness of things, but their inability to fully satisfy us. Every year there’s a too and fro between those giving up social media and those committed to its benefit frustrated its categorised as a vice we should do less of.
That misses the point. We don’t give something up for Lent because it’s bad for us, but because we need reminding it’s not that important.
Even within the cycle of Lent we see an impermanence to the sacrifice. Count the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter and it doesn’t add up to 40. The Sundays during Lent were never normally counted, on the day we set aside from work we also set aside from fasting. As though when we come to worship God we remember it’s not in denial of things that we find him, but in awareness of his place at the pinnacle of it all.
One year I gave up cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolate, anything with sugars in apart from fruit and other natural occurrences. Another year I gave up caffeine, the most beneficial of all my Lenten adventures, I got over the afternoon headaches, the tiredness to sleep better, and wake better. Last year I gave up meat, for no reason other than deciding to do something.
Counter to the trend of giving up for 40 days is the encouragement to be proactive, take the period up to Easter to do something. A good thing to do, no doubt, acts of kindness to neighbours you know and those you don’t, an exercise in generosity over self denial. An attitude of grace and not legalism.
There are plenty of things I could give up. Some I want to and other I don’t. Some I would like to kick for good, and for others a temporary break would be healthy.
But to give up for the sake of it? To not do something because that’s what others are doing, or to do something because of the pressure of others? I suppose it is not the worst thing to do. Peer pressure is not always bad. It can push us forward, urge us on, it can make us better, it can help us grow closer to God. It is, incidentally, a good reason for church, not the only place it takes place, but an important one, and a vital one for me. A place where others encourage me in my discipleship, where they point out when I’m not doing the things I know I should.
More than anything, as I realise I won’t have any pancakes today, I note the limits of my actions. The smallness of my sentiments. That giving up chocolate for 40 days won’t change my life. That standing with those fasting food to raise the plight of those in Britain who cannot feed their families will not right all the wrongs.
I see my smallness. I see the insignificance of my acts. And yet I also see their importance, for me and for others. They are a symbol, a sign of commitment, a pointer to our intent to not place anything before God.
Signs matter most when we realise they are only signs. When we see through them, and we let others see through them and to what they are sign posting.
Whether we are giving up, or taking up, or lost among myriad options, Lent is a time to remember what matters most, and realise that sometimes, although it should, it sometimes doesn’t.