What We Give Up Makes Us Who We Are

Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor of practical theology and pastoral care at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia, has an unusual approach to Lent.

Instead of giving up chocolate or fasting, “sometimes I’ll say I’m giving up self-neglect,” she told me. For Lent two years ago she began blogging through “40 Days of Self-Care.” She committed each day to healthier eating, more yoga, meditation and better time management — making do with what she had rather than buying new stuff, since “marketing experts are tapping into self-care,” she said. The reaction from others surprised her: “First friends, and then strangers told me they were following the Lenten challenge. It floored me that people were taking it seriously. It connected to a hunger,” Dr. Walker-Barnes said. She published a book called “Sacred Self-Care” last year.

Dr. Walker-Barnes is one of many Christians who are reclaiming Lent, the 40 days of reflection, repentance and self-denial before Easter. What looks to outsiders like the biggest buzzkill of the church calendar has become a season that some younger Christians look forward to. They see it as a chance to rethink false promises about personal freedom and purpose — promises offered by churches that have let them down, and by a mainstream culture in which podcast gurus push juice cleanses and meditation in the name of self-optimization, a crooked image of the Lenten fast.

The earliest Christians marked the lead-up to Easter with a short period of fasting and repentance. By the late fourth century, Christians in Rome observed a 40-day Lent, according to some historians; in the sixth century Pope Gregory I inaugurated Ash Wednesday, when Christians with especially grievous sins on their conscience were supposed to do public penance in sackcloth and ashes. In 1091, a church synod called for all believers to receive a sprinkling or a smudge of these biblical symbols of repentance to remind them that “you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Over the centuries, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some Protestants have continued to observe Lent by abstaining from certain foods or skipping meals, with wide variations in severity. But to many evangelicals Lent long smacked of Catholic ritualism and bad theology, a season of self-punishment that implies you can earn God’s grace through your own effort.

Evangelicals have their own traditions of fasting: Their Puritan ancestors fasted on “days of humiliation” after epidemics, poor harvests and other signs of God’s wrath. Today many evangelical churches encourage some kind of New Year’s fast during January, and there is a marketplace of fasting programs like the “Daniel Fast,” based on Daniel’s preference for vegetables and lentils instead of delicacies from the king’s table in the Book of Daniel. (There’s also a version to help adherents lose weight.)

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