Lent, Sacrifice and Self Flagellation

Lent’s always been a funny thing, for me. I grew up in Protestant community in rural (ish) England, one that whilst accepting of other cultures and religions, everything was tinted in some way with a Protestant world view.

That’s no bad thing – I was lucky enough to be introduced to religion in such a welcoming and fuss-free environment.No one really cared about scripture, but we had Harvest Festival where instead of praying on our knees we would collect tinned food for the homeless, and, as I’ve said before, our Bible and Fable stories were told to us to provide moral concepts and lessons, not to praise a God on High. Protestant-flavoured Humanism, you might call it.

So Lent always confused me. I remember a Vicar telling us that he’d given up strawberries, his favourite food, for Lent, before launching into the Jesus and the desert story.

I didn’t understand. I still don’t. What does it prove? What does fasting prove? What does self-flagellation prove? Obedience, yes. Self-sacrifice, sure. It’s like a geas, I suppose, but today when no-one fasts during Lent the old fashioned way; instead picking what they’re going to give up, why? Why do it?

But in a world that doesn’t shackle itself to a God, whether they worship one or not, what’s the point?

My mother gave up sugar in her tea for Lent once, and has never had sugar in her tea since.

She gave something up for Lent, and found that during it, she didn’t need it anymore. That, I think, is the point of Lent or of these challenges that one finds around the blogosphere – Buy Nothing New For A Year etc.

But! Some people spend so much time talking about how and what they’re giving up, they’re missing the point.  Like those who would march around the country, whipping themselves in public for their sins. And then go on to continue doing those sins rather than learning from it.

Eating strawberries isn’t a sin. It’s not even unhealthy, and if they’re British strawberries there’s few issues one can take with that. All he was doing was denying himself something he liked for a month and a bit, and then going back and eating them again. Maybe it’s something uniquely Christian, but I really don’t get it.

But I do understand sacrifice. And for sacrifice to be worth it, it has to be well meant, it has to be sustainable or achievable, it has to hurt, and it has to have some kind of point. When you sacrifice something to a God, you are giving them something of yours as a gift – whether it’s your life force, an animal or an object. For it to be a sacrifice, it has to be a difficult thing to give up, or else it’s just a present. Which is kind, but it’s not a sacrifice.

I’ve never been good at giving stuff up – even stuff that actively harms me, like sugar. But I’ve been thinking recently about the Vicar and his strawberries, and a thought did occur to me.

Perhaps I can’t change my habits to improve myself – it reeks too much of self-flagellation for me to do it. We live short lives, and some of us live difficult ones that will not be improved by denying ourselves strawberries.

But, there are things we can give up that will not only help ourselves, not only be a worthy sacrifice to whichever Deity we hold dear, but can also help the poor and the planet and animals and who knows what else.

I’m not doing mine for Lent – I’m already late to the party for that. I’m going to try and keep to it for the rest of my life. I’ll talk more about what I’ve chosen in later posts.

What that sacrifice is to you, is up to you. But there’s plenty to choose from, at all levels to suit you. A sacrifice you can’t afford is not a sacrifice. It’s self-harm.


3 thoughts on “Lent, Sacrifice and Self Flagellation

  1. I think it may be a case of making a virtue out of necessity, historically speaking – in Northern Europe this is the hungry part of the year, last year’s harvest is probably all but gone, new things are not growing, so you have a religious fast, because that makes it easier to bear. In a modern context, with people skipping the odd luxury to feel virtuous, it can seem more like smugness than sacrifice. Can’t say I’m a fan 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s why it drives me up the wall. So many people are lacking basic necessities, and someone is bragging about not having chocolate biscuits and feeling ultra closer to sainthood, it just makes your head spin. I’m not against religious fasting in general, but if you’re going to do that, you have to do it properly or it’s besides the point, surely?

      It reminds me of the arguments in the 1600s and on, so much of the Church’s business and time was used up arguing whether or not hot chocolate was allowed during Lent, it’s sort of circular and pointless.

      Liked by 1 person

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