The customary practice of self-sacrifice during Lent carries tinges of earnest piety and religious compunction. It can feel like a moral “heavy.” But it also has a certain appeal.
Despite relentless societal reminders of the benefits of having more, somewhere in the undercurrent of human experience we retain the knowledge that less can be more, that life abundant is not synonymous with life over-indulgent.
The appeal of less became particularly clear to me as I sipped a Coke on the eve of Lent back in the mid-1990s. As I poured the fizzy dark sugar water into my temple of the Holy Spirit, I had an unusual moment of clarity. It was also a moment of repulsion.
I was repulsed by my action. Not only was I willfully doing incremental harm to my body, I was also making a donation to Mr. Coca-Cola and bringing more plastic into the world in the process. All for the sake of bubbles and sugar. I felt duped.
I do not wish to imply that people who buy soft drinks are bereft of moral fortitude. We are all indictable on multiple counts of less-than-noble consumption, and likewise all worthy of boundless grace regardless of our shopping habits. I’m just saying that in that moment I knew the decision to give up something for Lent had been made for me.
I realized the power of Lent as a liturgical antidote to consumer stress and excess. Overcoming the allure of more stuff is a tough task. Rather than continually trying to conjure the willpower to resist the offerings of the marketplace, I like to think of allowing myself to be drawn into the spiritual tide of Lent, an ancient rhythm tapped into the human knowledge that less can be more.
The liturgical calendar presents us with a season of simplification, of de-carbonating our bellies and souls. I think of it as practical liturgy.
The perennial peeling away of consumptive layers need not start or finish with soft drinks. The long list of candidates for the Lenten chopping block is conveniently provided for us by the advertising industry. For me, soda was a good first experiment.
When I swore off soft drinks for Lent I knew there would be little reason to revert to my carbonated ways of old after Holy Week. I wouldn’t celebrate Easter with a two-litre of Mountain Dew. With few exceptions—mostly involving fizzed-up punch—I haven’t strayed from my original commitment. Nor have I been particularly tempted to.
I feel good about the de-carbonation of my being. I feel good that my money doesn’t contribute to the global cause of fizz.
Of course, the remaining consumer shortcomings in my life help prevent that satisfaction from becoming self-satisfaction. That’s important. I’m not saying Lent should be a season of anti-corporate self-righteousness. The focus must be Easter redemption.
Lent looks forward to the mystery at the heart of life abundant. The practical, self-sacrificial liturgy of the season offers the possibility of peeling away layers that distract us, bit by over-sweetened bit, from that life abundant.