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Why Is Everyone So Pious During Lent? [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

This Question That Haunts comes from my friend, Mother Jean, an Episcopal priest in Huron, South Dakota, who hooks me up with some choice hunting every Fall:

My question has to do with Lent.  How much, do you think, of the dreary, self-flagellating nature of Lent has to do with our Puritan understanding of the Atonement, i.e., Penal Substitution?  I have come to really hate Lent because everyone is SO darned pious and self-sacrificing.  Not that those are bad things, but everyone’s so dang gloomy about it.  Lent anticipates the crucifixion, certainly, but it also anticipates the resurrection.

You respond in the comments. I’ll respond on Friday. See all of the past questions and answers here, or buy the ebook by clicking below. Submit your own question here.



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  • Sharla Hulsey

    I think that even those of us who know God has forgiven us for our sins (and in my case they are legion) feel a need to *do* something to demonstrate–if only to ourselves–that we truly are sorry for our screwups and serious about making changes so we don’t repeat them. Lent builds the opportunity to do that right into the calendar. But you know, that stuff in the Sermon on the Mount about not putting on a show when we’re fasting, praying, giving alms, or whatever still applies. So my Lenten discipline is mostly a private matter, and I am personally doing my best not to be gloomy; it’s not really my nature anyway.

    (And I think there is something to be said for letting up on it from time to time. If every Sunday is a “little Easter,” then we should lighten up then, if not go completely hog-wild. And last weekend was my anniversary, and we were in Minneapolis for a friend’s ordination service; so I set aside discipline and enjoyed the trip and a wonderful (and expensive) dinner.

  • Carl Gregg

    My favorite way of responding to questions along these lines with with the film Chocolat. I’ve posted more about “Chocolate for Lent” at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2015/02/chocolate-for-lent/

  • Larry Barber

    N.T. Wright has pointed out that we put so much emphasis on Lent that by the time Easter rolls around we don’t have the energy to celebrate it. Maybe we should emphasize Easter (the season) as much as we do Lent?

  • Teer Hardy

    Our over-piousness during Lent, I think, can be traced back to way many of us are not pious during the rest of the Church calendar. We are so exhausted by the time Christmas ends that many take the following months after. How often do you hear something like, “I just can’t wait for the holidays to be over”? By the time Fat Tuesday comes around we jump into a reactionary posture where we are attempting to make up for lost time, which I think could be where the over-piousness during Lent could stem from. And I think Larry is right, in that by the time we get to Easter, the real celebratory moment, we are so exhausted from our chocolate or soda fast that we no longer have the energy to celebrate.

  • “How much, do you think, of the dreary, self-flagellating nature of Lent has to do with our Puritan understanding of the Atonement, i.e., Penal Substitution?”

    This is a very odd question, to me, since the Puritans abolished Lent.

    By the same token, the more severe versions of penal substitution are precisely the ones that most eliminate any possibility of any sort of meaningful penance. If “Jesus paid it all,” then I downgrade his sacrifice by trying to participate in it myself.

    Those of us who observe Lent, usually minimally, see some value in developing some small ability to deny ourselves, since most of the time we are hell-bent on getting what we want.

    But again I suppose it just shows how differently we view the world. I honestly can’t imagine anyone looking out over the contemporary landscape and thinking that ourproblem is too much piety and self-denial.

  • JeanM

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head!

  • JeanM

    Just to be clear – I wasn’t asking why people observe Lent; I was asking
    why some people are so gloomy about it. In our reading for Ash
    Wednesday, Jesus specifically tells us not to parade our piety around,
    and especially the kind of piety that shows how much we are sacrificing
    to be pious. I don’t think our problem is too much piety, as you’ve indicated. I think it’s too much SHOW of piety.

  • JeanM

    I LIKE it!