It’s Lent again and, if you’re Christian, you’re probably giving up something you like. Or perhaps you thought about giving something up, but decided against it: Either way, thoughts of sacrifice must have crossed your mind. And, while I can’t speak for myself—I am not a Christian—I certainly know many Christians who are giving up everything from chocolote to alcohol to sex.
Once upon a time, Christians were only asked to make sacrifices in the real world but this year, at least one Italian cleric has asked Catholics to make sacrifices in the virtual world as well. According to the BBC , the Archbishop of Modena wants young people to give up texting and social networking sites (like Facebook) in order to “cleanse themselves from the virtual world and get back into touch with themselves.” Other Italian Archbishops have asked people to give up mineral water or to recycle more (I’m not quite sure how recycling is a fitting “sacrifice” for Lent, except that maybe not recycling is a luxury that would be hard to surrender).
All this got me thinking: People are giving up all this stuff for Lent but what would Jesus give up?
The question (like the title of this post) is purely rhetorical because we have a good idea of what Jesus would give up (if we take the Gospels at their word, anyway). In Christian tradition, Lent commemorates the 40 days and nights Jesus spent in the desert. According to three of the Gospels (Matthew, Luke, and Mark), Jesus was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit after John the Baptist . . . um . . . baptised him. He ate nothing while in the desert and, at the end of 40 days, was quite hungry. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, he was visited by Satan (or the slanderer, depending on the translation) who tempted him with food, wealth, and power. Here’s how Mark, the least verbose on the subject of Christ’s temptation, put it:
At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”
The other two Evangelists go into greater detail, listing the actual temptations. First, Jesus was tempted with food:
The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
Next, he was tempted with wealth:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”
Finally, the Devil tempted Jesus with power:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
In the end, Jesus triumphed over the Devil and resisted his temptations, which leads to another, bigger question: If Jesus Christ, the spiritual founder of the the Christian religion, endured 40 days of hunger in the desert, at the end of which he rejected both basic needs (food) and luxuries (wealth and power), how is it that modern Christians have to give up so little for Lent? I mean, don’t get me wrong, texting is an essential part of many modern Christians’ lives, but is giving that up really in keeping with the spirit of sacrifice? Could the Vatican not demand a greater sacrifice from the congregations it instructs to emulate Christ? Frankly, it’s a little demeaning to the memory of Christ’s ordeal in the desert that today, people who claim to be memorializing his suffering, have the option of giving up something as trivial as chocolate.
Ultimately, what we choose to “sacrifice” says as much about the modern world we inhabit as it does about the gap between how we live and how the majority of the rest of the planet lives. Most people on this planet have never owned a cell phone, let alone a computer. Every day, millions of people wake up hungry and go to bed thirsty. Millions have no access to clean, pipe-borne water. And uncounted numbers of women and girls have no say in when, where, how, or with whom they have sex. For them, giving up sex is impossible. Likewise, for most of the rest of the people on this planet, giving up texting or chocolate or mineral water is not even an option. These are luxuries they have no choice but to do without—day after day after day.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope. At least one of those Italian Archbishops asked that people recycle more. Recycling is certainly a good start. Maybe next year he’ll ask his worshippers to oppose war or not beat their wives. Hopefully more and more religious leaders will ask people to not only give up things they enjoy but also to take up things they may not enjoy but which are beneficial to the rest of the human family. Maybe one day, a courageous Archbishop somewhere will order his congregants to never take a human life. After all, war and wifebeating (like most of our world’s ills) are intimately linked to wealth and power. Most importantly, lest we forget, these two temptations make up exactly two thirds of the temptations Jesus resisted in the desert.
Today, what are we to make of this story, which teaches us that 2000 years ago, a lone man starving himself in the desert knew that, in order to prepare for his mission, he needed to make some sacrifices? After all, his mission was no small feat: He had taken on no less a challenge than the salvation of the world! Of the three temptations, Jesus rejected one for only 40 days, but the other two he rejected for ever. He gave up food for just 40 days and nights, but he resumed eating once he returned from the desert. The bigger temptations, wealth and power, he gave up for ever—if the Gospels are to be taken literally, he did not pursue them for the rest of his life.
So when Lent rolls around next year, what will you give up?