OK--this post is somewhat mis-titled: it really should be "In Defense of Giving Up Chocolate for Lent" which, at least in my community, is definitely the go-to negative example of what you are "supposed" to do for Lent, and what Lent is really about. But, here's the thing--and this is my "true confessions" moment for the week--I DO give up chocolate for Lent, and I have for over a decade; and I'm not ashamed to admit it. [Well, maybe a little ashamed, given all the bad press, but I'm outing myself now!] So, I just want to take a couple paragraphs to explain why I do it, and why it has become an important, powerful part of my yearly Lenten journey to the cross. Now it's true that giving up chocolate isn't my only Lenten practice, and it doesn't stand alone. However, to be honest, I also need to say that the one year I didn't give up chocolate [caving in to peer-pressure], I really, really missed it--and it didn't feel at all like Lent to me. So, even though it isn't my only practice, I'd be lying if I said giving up chocolate wasn't a central part of my Lenten discipline--and the discipline I cherish the most.
OK--so here's how it works for me: there are three interconnected pieces to the practice that I find meaningful. First, I love chocolate--I mean, really, really love it. I eat it every day, usually more than once a day, and it's a go-to reward/pick-me-up/consolation prize--you name it. So, it's a genuine sacrifice for me not to eat it for 6 weeks or so. Am I replicating Jesus' sacrifice on the cross? No, I am not--and, regardless of what you are doing, neither are you--that's not the point. Rather, giving up chocolate is way of reminding myself that God comes first in my life, before anything else; and this "giving up" of something I desire is a form of offering something that I love up to God. And at the same time, it offers me the opportunity to reflect intentionally on all my desires, being honest with myself about the ways they deepen and enhance my relationships with God and others, and the ways they obstruct or weaken them.
And this leads to the second piece: every time I think about chocolate or see chocolate or miss eating chocolate--and from my vantage point, that is quite frequently!--I'm reminded of God and this Lenten walk, and I'm prompted to say a brief prayer of gratitude for the food I do have, or a prayer of intercession for those who go hungry. So, with the removal of a daily act that often is quite mindless [popping a piece of chocolate in my mouth as I'm walking out the door and talking on the phone], space has been created for a more mindful connection with God and with others.
Finally, the last piece of this practice is that it gives me a chance to put a little more in the offering plate each week. I'm not breaking the bank with my chocolate consumption and I'm not actually doing the math--calculating what I'm not spending each week and so on--so I don't want to overstate this. It's really more about connecting my "giving up" with a concrete "giving to" my neighbor, connecting a "taking away" with a "giving back."
So, there it is. Say what you will: giving up chocolate for Lent may be superficial, it may be childish, and there may be a dozen things I could do that would be "better"--that may all be true. Nevertheless, I have come to truly value--even look forward to--this practice, and I plan to keep it.
Ultimately, though, I think what is most important is finding a Lenten practice that really works for you in the particular time and place you find yourself this year. One of the things I love most about Lent is that it provides the structure and explicit invitation to a more intentional engagement with one's faith in a way that manifests itself in concrete practices in the world. Of course, I could take on any number of spiritual disciplines any time of the year, but mostly I don't, so I treasure Lent for carving out the time and place for spiritual reflection and discipline, and offering what I find to be an irresistible invitation to these practices year after year. I hope you do, too.
And six weeks from now, I'll be the one at the Easter Vigil with the chocolate in her purse, waiting for the joyous proclamation that "He is Risen!"