Sunday Longread: What does lent mean in 2022

Has the period associated with discipline and simplicity turned into just another wellness trend?

On the first day of February, my local Tesco’s Special Offers section had been transformed; gone were the health-food alternatives and protein shakes, presumably snatched up by those clinging to their New Year’s Resolutions.  Instead, there were Easter Eggs; rows upon rows of bright coloured boxes containing chocolate eggs wrapped in shiny foil, all on 3 for 2.  Next to these bundles of guilty pleasure, was a Pancake Tuesday selection; pancake mixes, lemons, and maple syrups all lined up in preparation for a festivity that was still a month away.

Somehow, two distinctly Christian holidays had been spun into a supermarket sales surge, with the intermittent period completely disregarded.  This begged the question; has Lent been abandoned in our times, and replaced with everyday excess? Or is there still room for self-discipline and simplicity in a progressively secular society?

“Traditionally, the period was associated with abstinence of all kinds, and by renouncing day-to-day pleasures, Christians could feel closer to their faith”

Lent is a period in the Christian calendar that marks the time leading up to Easter.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday (also known as the day after Pancake Tuesday to the non-faithful foodie community), during the forty days and forty nights of Lent, Christians are expected to reflect on their faith, and live simply, mirroring the Jesus’s forty-day sacrifice as he fasted in the wilderness.  Traditionally, the period was associated with abstinence of all kinds, and by renouncing day-to-day pleasures, Christians could feel closer to their faith.

Nowadays, many young people in Ireland follow a much more secular lifestyle, despite their upbringing.  Over 90% of Irish primary schools and 50% of secondary schools in Ireland are under Catholic patronage, meaning that a majority of young people in Ireland have been exposed to mandatory school masses, religion classes and widely commercialised sacraments such as First Holy Communion and Confirmation.  However, this form of religious education is widely performative; most eight year olds don’t understand the relevance of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, but see the appeal of a pretty white dress and a day out, or seen as obligatory.  As a result of this, true spirituality or faith doesn’t resonate with many young people, and religion is abandoned as they get older.

So, what does Lent symbolise for this widely secular generation?  For many, the original meanings are lost, but the novelty of the period is preserved, similar to that of Christmas or Easter.  Many people still take on the challenge of giving or taking something up for forty days, but the implications of this have been altered to suit a more self-motivated ideology.  Lent can be seen as an excuse to “cleanse”; with people sacrificing sugar or social media in the name of wellbeing and mindfulness.  This is in-line with the recent upturn of healthy-lifestyle trends, with many TikTok users starting a forty day fitness challenge under the hashtag #lentchallenge.  In this way, the period of Lent is more accessible to young people, but also more self-centred.  Writing for The Guardian, Giles Fraser comments; “the irony of the secular Lent of giving up chocolate etc. is that it turns a period of self-denial into one of self-regard…It makes it all about me, and most especially, the cultivation of my own beauty or sense of worth”.  These connotations of self-improvement that the practice of Secular Lent has garnered is far from the period’s original purpose, but is it closer to the values of young people today?

One Senior Fresh student spoke to Trinity News: “I see Lent as an opportunity to live a healthier lifestyle.  I’d consider myself secular, I don’t really engage with religion at all, but I still used it as a time to set out some better habits for myself, such as cutting down on sugar and processed foods, even if I don’t fully stick to it”.  Another Senior Fresh student commented: “While I don’t practice my faith, I would still consider myself Catholic.  I think Secular Lent can fit into the modern notion of self-improvement, while simultaneously aligning with the values of Catholicism that we see in Ireland today, even if it isn’t particularly imposed on me.  I have always partaken in Lent, maybe because I’ve always wanted to partake in Pancake Tuesday and Easter.  I don’t see Lent as a time of penance, but rather as a chance for self betterment; nowadays, whether you follow Lent’s religious narrative is up to you”.

For many young people, Lent is just another wellness trend, along the lines of using a gua-sha, doing Veganuary or completing a HIIT workout.  While this does not pose any negative effects for young people, it seems to abandon the Christian values that are embedded in Lent’s cultural relevance.  Can this be seen as the appropriation of a Christian observance, or the adaptation of an outdated crux of Irish culture?  Many Christian holidays, such as Easter and Christmas, have strayed from their original purpose, and morphed into something much more secular and commercialised as Ireland becomes more and more religiously diverse.  While the Lenten period of fasting and frugality is much less profitable for businesses, it may still contain benefits for the Irish population.  Perhaps instead of religious reflection, Lent can be used as a period of self-reflection and improvement.

Lara Mellett

Second Year English Studies student at Trinity