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The Desperately Poor Don’t Give Up Anything for Lent

March 10, 2014

During Lent a lot of Christians give things up.  A lot of Christians give up food of some sort – chocolate, meat, fried food, coffee, dessert, or something else.  Now giving things up often makes us feel a bit put-upon even if we’re the ones oppressing ourselves.  However, I believe that it could (and should) make us thankful.

The genesis of this article began with two simple observations.  First, while most Christians pray before meals I have spent most of my life wondering why we pray before meals instead of some other set of equally-spaced times around the day.  Second, when I break a fast I’m generally much clearer on why I’m praying before a meal.  This second bit isn’t all that surprising – when I’m really hungry I’m more thankful for food.  But this also brings me to another observation: I can give up food only because I have it.

Take, for example, giving up dessert.  To give up dessert meaningfully one must eat dessert regularly enough for it to be missed.  If I were an impoverished subsistence farmer in central Mexico I might well be able to give up dessert every day of the year and never notice because dessert is a luxury that I would never or almost never have access to.  For me to give up meat for Lent I must live a life in which I can afford to buy meat often enough that I would notice something odd if I went for forty days without it.  Most people in most places and times have not been in that situation.

This is where giving up meets gratitude.  Giving something up means that you have it.  When I give up food I give it up by choice – not because the harvest failed and there’s no food to be had, not because I’m too poor to buy any food, and not because someone more powerful than I has cut off my access to food to make a point.  In giving something up I can also celebrate that it is mine to give up.

Moreover, the reason something is mine to give up is always because of God’s gift.  This is true both in an ultimate sense – everything you are and therefore everything you do is God’s gift – and in a more “normal” sense.  Why can I choose to give up chocolate?  Because I work hard?  Sure – I can afford to buy chocolate in part because I work hard.  But even if I wanted to pretend that my work was somehow all my own there’s this small issue that most people throughout history could have worked very hard and never had any chocolate.  The fact that I live in America where there are jobs for hard workers (even if there are still less than we would like) and where the average income is high enough that normal people can buy completely frivolous food and so the grocery stores all stock it is not my doing.  The fact that I live in the 21st century with international shipping of food and a huge number of domesticated plants to eat is not my doing.  Were I a hard-working North Korean in modern-day society I doubt I’d ever have the chance to give up chocolate.  Were I a hard-working Irishman in the year 900 I’d also never get a chance to give up chocolate.

The very fact that we can give things up – so many different things, to judge by what my friends are telling me they are giving up – is a sign that we are blessed.  At the end of Lent we will pick up what we have set aside and we will probably be thankful for it.  But right now let us also be thankful that it was ever ours to set aside.  Be thankful for the meal you eat but also the one you chose not to eat.  And, of course, pray for those who have no choice in the matter.

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