In our denomination, Lent is understood as a forty-day season that lasts about six weeks (Sundays are excluded) which is considered a time of penitence and meditation. The scriptural basis for this church season is Jesus' forty days in the desert wrestling with Satan before emerging to begin his earthly ministry. Many denominations do not celebrate Lent and their only knowledge of it is that people usually give up something that is important to them for the period from Ash Wednesday (which many also do not observe) to Easter (which they very assuredly do). It may seem odd to use "celebrate" to describe a time when sin and repentance are the keynote concepts, but for me, it becomes a celebration because I know that after it is over there is Easter, and Lent is just preliminary work in preparation for that most glorious of celebrations.
Giving up stuff is one of the oldest practices. I remember my few childhood Roman Catholic friends talking about giving up chocolate or colas and it seemed rather exotic. Fish appeared on dinner tables on Friday evening and tuna salad or casserole was a staple of school lunches for six weeks or so. While the fish is no longer a requirement, look around at how many restaurants and fast-food joints offer fish fries or special fish dinners after Ash Wednesday (sometimes earlier). I love fish (and shrimp, and scallops) but somehow trying to be observant on Fridays in Lent makes that Big Mac seem all the more desirable. I'm not required to give up meat on those days, but I do try. Still, it's amazing how tempting it is sometimes to say "the heck with it" and head for the drive-thru. Who would know, or even care, whether I were trying to observe meatless Fridays during Lent? Why would it matter?
Temptation for Big Macs (or pepperoni pizzas) on Fridays are part of their value. It's a reminder that I'm supposed to be following Jesus who fasted for forty days in the wilderness with no Big Macs or pepperoni pizzas during the week and fish on Fridays. It's supposed to be a bit irritating, like wearing a hair shirt, or even downright uncomfortable; it's the least I can do to identify with Jesus and his suffering. It is supposed to be irritating. Medicine is supposed to taste bad or it won't work very well, or so Mama assured me as she poured out some vile liquid or nasty lozenge. Same principle, different application.
I lived for three years in the Philippines, and trust me, three years with not a single Big Mac was a very big deal. For the first year after we came back to the States, if we drove past a McDonald's without stopping in for a Big Mac, I nearly broke down in tears of frustration. I can drive past them now, or I can eat at them fairly regularly. Still, on Fridays in Lent a Big Mac looks more desirable than any other time. I love the quote from Robert Orben, "Most people would like to be delivered from temptation but would like it to keep in touch." Driving by McDonald's on a Friday in Lent is definitely keeping that temptation in touch. But, when I think about it, it gives me an opportunity to feel just the tiniest bit virtuous to have not yielded to temptation and a bit of self-encouragement to keep up the good fight.
Lent ends, eventually. I'm free then to indulge in the things I tried my best ot assiduously avoid during Lent, but after that first initial Friday after Easter, it seems like just another week. There's nothing special about it, or nothing that makes me really stop and think about what I am doing or why. There's an intention required in Lent, even if it's just to not eat chocolate or give up using bad language (four-letter expletives as well as incorrect grammar). I have to make a conscious choice to do that one small thing as a nod to a Lenten observance and a sign of respect for Jesus' suffering.
But I sure like temptation to keep in touch --