The concept of giving up something for Lent appeals to lots of folks, as nearly one-quarter of Americans do it, according to Christianity Today.
Lent, which began Wednesday and is the Christian period marking the 40 days that the Bible says Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness while withstanding temptations from the devil, is observed by 82 percent of Catholics who regularly attend Mass.
About a third of churchgoing Protestants and evangelicals, and 36 percent of all Hispanics, also observe Lent. But so do 12 percent of people from non-Christian faiths. Even 4 percent of atheists give up something during Lent.
The most popular sacrifice for Lent is "social networking," according to an ironic 2017 Twitter Lent Tracker run by people who are not giving up social networking. In addition to the tradition of giving up meat on Fridays, other popular "give-ups" include sweets and tweets, buds and suds, steaks and cakes, TV and sex. Jokers tweet that they are giving up "Donald Trump," "hope" and "religion."
Almost every religion encourages periods of "prayer, fasting and almsgiving," says the Rev. Philip Timko, an Order of St. Benedict monk who teaches and serves as minister of the Sacraments at Benedictine University in Lisle. Seen as spiritual preparation for baptism in the early days of the Catholic Church, Lent also is "a period for people who have been baptized to consider how well they are living up to the commitments they made," Timko says.
In his message for Lent, Pope Francis uses the biblical story of a rich man ignoring the needs of a poor, sick beggar named Lazarus to urge people to give up indifference to the weak and the poor.
"It's a good thing for a human being," Timko says of practicing self-control and concern for others. "Even an atheist has to deal with the delusion of thinking, 'It's all about me.'"
While it might count as a sacrifice to give up beluga caviar, green M&M's or red lentils during Lent, the sacrificial item should be something you truly will miss, says Timko. In addition to the annual forgoing of candy as a boy during Lent, Timko remembers that he and his siblings once made a hollow sacrifice.
"We gave up movies, but the only day we went to movies was Sunday," says Timko, noting that Sundays are not subject to the rules of Lent. "I don't know how our parents tolerated this sleight of hand."
There are other ways to cheat, or at least fudge, the rules of Lent.
"While fish, lobster and other shellfish are not considered meat and can be consumed on days of abstinence, indulging in the lavish buffet at your favorite seafood place sort of misses the point," the Rev. Thomas A. Milota writes in his weekly message for parishioners of Ss. Peter and Paul Church in Naperville.
"It's supposed to be a sacrifice, so don't turn it into a luxury meal," Timko agrees. "What counts during Lent is the motive."
In other words, it's not exactly kosher if you give up sweets and fried food during Lent simply to get your body in shape for the bikini you plan to rock during that spring break beach vacation.
"It's less than pure," Timko says of people who basically use Lent as a do-over for New Year's resolutions, such as losing weight.
As for Timko, he likes the idea of connecting with others by giving up your cellphone and social media things that take you away from face-to-face interactions. Even monks make changes for Lent, Timko says.
"I'm devoting more time to reading, reflecting and prayer. I have some books I picked out for Lent," Timko says, referring to "Why the Cross?" by Donald Senior and "Open Mind, Faithful Heart," a collection of reflections by Pope Francis.
"We're subject to the same kind of distractions," Timko says, noting the abbey has social media access. "We're capable of wasting time, too."
Still, I'm going to abstain from texting him a request to retweet this column.