February 8, 2008
Lent: Going Beyond A Hiatus from Chocolate
UK Christian organizations offer imaginative theological possibilities for Lenten practice
Lost in the media storm preceding and following Super Tuesday, and the actual storms that debilitated or devastated much of the US that same day, was media coverage of the start of Lent, arguably the most recognized of the exclusively Christian seasons on the Church's liturgical calendar. In reviewing English-speaking coverage of this turning of the seasons, I was struck by the difference between US media reports and those issuing from across the pond in the UK.
US stories were generally conventional - though sometimes oddly technical or whimsical - and documented an approach to the season that was consistently pious, yet often private in scope, focusing on interior spiritual attitudes or individual struggles of the will in forgoing chocolate, coffee, alcohol, or insert-your-weakness-of-the-flesh-here for the 40-day period. (Jane Hawes's article is notable in its attempt to balance both the private-public and negative-positive dimensions of the season.)
Stories from the UK, on the other hand, conveyed a theological posture toward Lent that emphasized the public dimension of Christian commitment. Most notable is the Tearfund carbon fast mentioned by Tim Morgan in an earlier blog, which was launched by the Anglican bishops of London and Liverpool, and backed by Archbishop Rowan Williams, as well as scientist Sir John Houghton, an evangelical who formerly chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's scientific assessment. The proposal received considerable coverage in UK press (Daily Telegraph; The Guardian; BBC News; New Consumer), though its only mentions in the US were on one or two blogs, a university newspaper, and an ezine.
Also worth mentioning is the Lent Endurance Challenge issued by the UK organization Church Action on Poverty, and backed by several Anglican bishops, as well as Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist church leaders in the UK. The Challenge is to live the life of a refused asylum seeker for one week, which involves donating one's normal weekly food budget in exchange for ?3.50 and the typical food parcel supplied to the homeless by local charities. The hope is to give participants a glimpse into the life of these "living ghosts," who are "essentially airbrushed out of existence as ?failed' asylum seekers," but, lacking money to return home, remain in the UK, unnoticed or ignored by society at large.
These constructive and creative public applications of Christian theological commitments make my own internal ruminations about whether I should give up coffee or fried foods for Lent seem, if not entirely inconsequential, unimaginative and blatantly disengaged from my neighbor and the world. If Lent is about submitting to suffering for the sake of identification with our Lord, whose own suffering was always for the sake of carrying forward God's redemptive intent for the whole world, navel-gazing US Christians like me may want to look across the seas to spark our flickering theological imaginations.