Growing up in Highland Park as a Schwartz, I confess I don’t know that much about Lent. Maybe it’s time for that to change.
I’m pretty sure I’m going to offend a few people, and quite possibly a lot of people, but I can’t help it. Lent is in the air, and I want to learn a little more about it. After all, if it’s served up at the local grocery store, then I’m pretty sure I should try it.
Actually, this grocer doesn’t stock Lent per se. But it does have a tradition of providing Ash Wednesday provisions. That’s right. For the past twenty years of Ash Wednesdays, any one of us could have stopped by for a gallon of milk, some broasted chicken and, tucked away in the Wine & Spirits section of the store, found a clergy member dispensing benedictions complete with gently rubbed ashes on the foreheads of worshipers.
For years I’ve noted this and thought that if my favorite grocer really strove to be a full service store (witness the clergy in the wine department), then why couldn’t it provide me with a bikini wax and pedicure along with my brisket?
Early in my marriage, when we lived in our nation’s capital, Tim and I rented a townhouse that shared a brick wall with perhaps the loveliest family on earth. They hailed from Melbourne, Australia, and all four of the well-mannered children put on plaid uniforms daily and attended Catholic school. I mention this because child #3, who was then in first grade, spent a lot of time with me and we became pretty good buddies. After school, she’d come over and help with my brand new baby. What I loved about Ellie was that she was a chatterer. You know, someone who could fill the time laughing and commenting about anything and everything. And the observations and thoughts of a seven year old can be both entertaining and enlightening.
I’m coming back to Lent. Stay with me.
So there we were back in 1992, pushing the stroller and chattering up a storm together, when Ellie explained that Lent was coming and she needed to give up something dear to her so that she could get a seat at God’s feet.
“I’m going to give up Edward,” Ellie announced. Edward was, of course, her younger brother. And, though I grew up loosely schooled in the Jewish tradition, I had an inkling even then that giving up a sibling wasn’t really an option, alluring as it might sound.
All these years later, however, I suspect Ellie was on to something. Imagine if there were a religion that not only sanctioned, but encouraged its disciples to give up a family member for a month or so. Tired of your husband? Be devout and foreswear him for 40 days. Fed up with the kids and their habitual complaints about what’s for dinner? Bye-bye. See you in the next lunar cycle.
Where do I submerge myself to join?
Apparently, I haven’t quite identified the true purpose of Lent. And the Gospel According to Ellie is, in the end, just a seven year old’s attempt to ditch a baby brother and keep chocolate in her life. Still, it had a certain appeal.
The other day, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote in The New York Times that “the idea of Lent can be embraced by all of us, religious or otherwise.” The rationale? “You give up something personally important, so its absence will remind you of your purpose in giving it up.”
Let me see if I can get my matzoh-trained mind to wrap around this Cadbury-shaped concept. A little renunciation goes a long way? Give-up and ye shall receive? Starve a stomach, feed a soul?
Klinkenborg takes a less glib approach. “Wisdom comes from the bare places because they force humility upon us.”
Okay. Humility is good; hubris is bad. I buy that. And I like the concept that a reasonable sacrifice doesn’t have to disrupt life completely. In other words, while my nephew might not get a Hostess cupcake in his lunch during Passover, he still gets to snack on a Kosher-for-Passover Manischewitz brownie. Have you tasted one? It counts as a sacrifice, I promise.
But 40 days? That’s quite a commitment. Assuming that family members are off the table, I’m hard-pressed for what I’d be willing to give up for that long. Starbucks? That would be painful. Chocolate? Don’t think I could do it. Liquor? That’s a bad idea for those who must live with me. I’m nicer after a little sip or two of something medicinal. TV? Banish the thought.
I realize, as I confess my inability to give up anything, that I embody the modern, shallow values of contemporary consumer culture. That’s not really anything to brag about. In fact, I’d like to hit delete and erase that sentence right now.
That’s probably the point. The realization that I’m not willing to renounce anything for over a month seems a compelling reason to work toward that very goal.
Forty days is a long time. What could I successfully sacrifice? I don’t know. I give up.