Giving Up, Taking On

The season of Lent brings with it much talk of what one will “give up” for the duration. Certainly, growing up Catholic, as I did, the question of what one intended to sacrifice for 40 days was one to be deeply contemplated. Give up candy? Let’s not get carried away! Maybe give up a particular type of candy. Black jelly beans? Well, no one except Grandpa likes black jelly beans, so that hardly seems in the right spirit of things. How about M&M’s? Yes, that will do—I’m giving up M&M’s for Lent this year. And that’s plain and peanut!

Although the obvious questions—why would God care one way or another if I refrain from M&M’s for this particular time period, or avoid eating meat on a certain day of the week, or adopt a fasting regimen?—may have crossed my mind, I don’t recall giving them any particular thought. It was just something that was done.

At university, however, a wise priest in campus ministry put forward a radical (to me) thought: Instead of thinking in terms of “giving up” something for Lent, what if one thought about “taking on” something? It needn’t be anything monumental—simply resolving to be on the lookout for ways in which to help one’s neighbor, for instance, would do. And if that extended beyond the Lenten season, well, so much the better. (Except you’d have to find something else to take on next Lent!)

And so it is that, in the course of these few fast decades since college, I have on occasion taken on something for Lent, and I have on occasion given up something for Lent…and a few times I’ve done both (e.g., skipped lunch and donated the what I would have spent to some worthwhile cause or agency).

During that time, I have encountered some interesting attitudes toward whatever I may be practicing during this season. I have been told that it is wrong of me to assay some small sacrifice, since Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice is the only one that matters. I have been told that it is wrong for me to take on something for Lent, because Lent is “supposed” to be about giving up. And, of course, I have been asked why I think God cares if I eat M&M’s or not.

Truth is, I doubt that God cares one way or the other about M&M’s. For me, whether I take on or give up, it’s not a question of sacrifice but rather a question of focus. By adopting whatever regimen I may, I nudge myself to focus on the season and what it means; I prompt myself to dwell, if only for a moment or two, on that single most important event in the history of the world.

So, far from being a sacrifice, it is in fact a gift. And that feels right to me.

And M&M’s will still be around in six weeks.

Bill ReynoldsBill Reynolds
Director of Communications