I give up chocolate for Lent.
This is a serious sacrifice for a woman who loves chocolate. It is the food of the god/desses. No matter what is going on in my life, chocolate makes it better. If there is no chocolate in heaven, I will demand to be reborn. I will gladly suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for a good piece of dark chocolate. The precocious child with the wise eyes and easy smile, the child who old folks say has been here before, no doubt came back to get some chocolate. Or, it could be that chocolate is a little taste of heaven. An incentive. Now nutritionists say that dark chocolate is full of anti-oxidants. It is health food. Joy.
When Valentine’s Day comes before Lent, I buy myself a nice box of chocolates. Little nuggets of wonderful with caramel or raisins, or nuts, or cherries or something else gooey sweet inside make me happy. I buy my own chocolate, a gift to myself from myself to remind myself that no one will or ought to love me more than I love myself. I will give up almost anything for the right cause, but if some child in the two-thirds world is living under oppression and I have to give up chocolate to call attention to the injustice, I must confess that I will think twice. Let us find another strategy. There is more than one way to make a point.
So, why do I give up this stuff I love for Lent? What does Lent mean?
I have always thought the ecclesiastical calendar follows the seasons of seed time and harvest. It is a way to make our struggles with the natural world holy. In the northern hemisphere, Fall brings us Halloween and All Saints Day when the line between life and death becomes silver-thin invisible, days darken earlier and we celebrate the harvest with feasts. Christmas is a celebration of the winter solstice and the birth of Jesus, who for Christians is the light of the world. Days become longer and there is still food for celebration. Lent, it seems to me, is a time of fasting that may have come about when it was difficult to keep food and when the storage from the harvest ran low. In Christian tradition, it is a time of penance and of preparation for Easter. It is a time to imitate Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness before he started his ministry. Then Spring comes. We celebrate the renewal of life. Birds return, flowers bloom, melted snow and spring rain makes the earth soft again beneath our feet. We celebrate resurrection. We plant. Summer comes and we work and play in ordinary time awaiting the harvest.
However, my association of the Lenten fast with low food supply does not hold today in the United States. We live in a society of abundance. Even in these hard economic times, we can go to a supermarket any season of the year and find shelves stocked with a wide variety of food. There are all kinds of fruits and vegetables and meats and cereals and breads. And the chocolate – Oreos, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate chocolate chip ice cream and more. We do not have to fast because we are running low on food.
Yet, there is something to be said for fasting as penance and as preparation. We do not like the concept of penance. It brings with it visions of sackcloth and ashes, of societal judgment against us, of sin and of punishment. We try everyday to do the best we can, to lead moral live, to mind our own business and to not hurt other people. Yet, if truth be told, we know we have missed the mark. We have done what we ought not to have done. We have left undone what we ought o have done. Fasting something, reminds us of our own imperfections and warns us against our own self-righteousness. It reminds us to give grace and forgiveness to others as we need their grace and forgiveness.
As a time of preparation, Lent is important. Giving up something reminds Christians that Jesus, the Son of God, gave his life so that we may have eternal life. It can also remind us, both Christians and non Christians, of the salvific character of the life and teaching of the man Jesus. Womanist theologian Delores Williams reminds us of this in her work. She reminds us of the importance of the wilderness in our theological and moral reckoning.
So, standing in grocery store, drugstore, bookstore lines, facing down the chocolate bars, I am reminded of Jesus’ teaching to love my enemies, to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek and to take care of the poor. I am reminded of my obligation to work to bring the realm of God and God’s radical love to earth as it is in heaven. I am reminded of all the people in the world for whom fasting is not a choice but a way of life because they do not have enough to eat.
I give up chocolate for Lent to remind myself that the redemption of the world in time is our work. I remind myself that with sacrifice and with love this is possible.
Valerie Elverton Dixon was on the faculty at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass.