Let us be clear about this: Giving up chocolate for Lent isn’t a thing.
I can’t claim to understand Lent. I’m a Calvinist so I live like it’s Lent all year round. It’s taken me years to convince myself that I’m allowed a large glass of orange juice and that it’s not the luxury item (like it was in the 1980s when it was considered to be a starter in a three course meal). So I may not be confident on the provenance of Lent. But I do know this. Whatever it’s about, it’s not about giving up chocolate for forty days.
Here’s what I do know: Lent traditionally begins on Ash Wednesday, the day after the Sacred Feast of the Pancakes, and ends on Maundy Thursday (a.k.a. The Day of Worrying about What Time to Leave the Next Day to Beat the Traffic on the A303).
Most Christian festivals, feast days and oddities are based on something biblical that is worth of being remembered and celebrated (although the practice of Beating the Bounds is just plain weird). Lent has closer ties to the Bible than most. The period is obviously linked to Jesus being tempted in the Wilderness for forty days and forty nights. This is, in turn, linked with the Israelites wandering in the Wilderness for forty years. The former is about faithfulness and fasting, the latter is about faithlessness and getting bored of the same dinner. (I like quail as much as the next man, but I wouldn’t want it every day.)
Why this forty day period has been earmarked as the ‘pre-match build-up’ to Easter is less clear to me. But it has been a tradition in numerous Christian denominations for centuries. Ironically, it seems to be one of the few things they have in common.
Lent seems to be about fasting. But what does Jesus make of fasting? Having set the standard in the desert, Jesus doesn’t make a big deal about it. Fasting was a common practice, and there’s no indication that he wanted it to end and that there was no longer any need for it. He did parody those who make a big show of fasting, contorting their faces in pain and making a public display of their self-denial, as if this in some way brings about divine favour. It doesn’t.
Perhaps today, Jesus would be even more satirical about what Lent and Easter has become. Maybe he would begin by pointing to the day when Lent begins, Shrove Tuesday, so-called because one is obtaining absolution – or shriving – for one’s sins. It’s surely a short hop from there to calling it Pancake Day, using up the fat before the lean season of Lent. Other cultures are less subtle, calling that day ‘Fat Tuesday’, which has in turn morphed into gaudy Mardi Gras celebrations where the vibe seems to be ‘Lent starts tomorrow so right now, let’s behave like sailors on shore leave’. If Jesus has instituted Lent, I’m not sure this would be how he imagined the launch date looking.
And so we move on to the period of Lent itself and the token giving up of something, like a sugary cocoa product. In effect, Lent has become an excuse to have another swing at a New Year’s Resolution. A second bite of the apple. The last chance saloon for will power. Somehow, Easter has become about self-improvement – when it is intended to bring about something quite different: a contrite and broken heart that cries out to the Lord for forgiveness and grace, rather than a forced smile wrapped around a low-fat sugar-free cereal bar.
Somehow, it is now appropriate to end this season of self-denial with the gorging on chocolate eggs on Easter Sunday. How did this happen? Presumably the same way as the transformation of the celebration of the Birth of Christ with dragging a tree indoors, covering it in shiny balls, topping it off with a fairy (rather than an angel) and using mistletoe as social blackmail for getting a free kiss.
The chocolate Easter eggs are another oddity that we have come to accept as normal. But it can’t have been part of the plan from Day 1, surely? It’s a Monty Python scene when you think about it. Picture the Good Friday scene with Eric Idle as a thief on the cross leaning over to Jesus and saying ‘I know you’re omniscient and all that but here’s one you won’t see coming. In two thousand years’ time, they’ll remember your death on the cross and subsequent empty tomb by giving each other eggs made of chocolate. Some of them will have a free mug underneath. It’s funny old world, eh?’
This article is one of many to be found in Death by Civilisation: How to Accidentally Ruin a Perfectly Decent Society (and How It Might be Saved) which is here.