Giving up caffeine or Facebook for Lent is so 2015. These days, a hot trend for the 40-day pre-Easter period of reflection and repentance involves caring for God’s creation.
Following the example of the Church of England, which encouraged members to give up single-use plastics during Lent last year, many American churches now recommend “fasting” from commonly discarded items such as water bottles, straws, plastic shopping bags and Styrofoam. This year, the Church of England is asking congregants to go on walks to pray and pick up trash.
On March 6, as Lent began on Ash Wednesday, the Episcopal Church launched a Creation Care Pledge, asking members to commit to environmentally friendly practices such as consuming less meat and tracking carbon use.
In Washington, D.C., an Episcopal church is holding workshops during Lent on topics such as solar energy and green homes. And a Catholic parish is avoiding disposable plastic and paper items at its Friday soup suppers, opting for washable dishes instead.
Do These Sacrifices Honor the Lenten Intent?
The tradition of giving up something for Lent is based on Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and praying in the wilderness, where Satan tempted him. Author Walter Brueggemann calls fasting “a discipline that gives energy for positive engagement with justice questions,” empowering Christians to act.
Reducing dependence on plastics helps people think about Lenten sacrifices “as more than just a personal thing, like chocolate or alcohol that’s enjoyable,” says the Rev. Sarah Rossing, an Episcopal pastor in Pennsylvania. “This is asking people to give up convenience…and be more intentional with…the earth.”
Some people, however, say giving up plastic for Lent misses the point. Although it makes the world a better place, says professor Stanley Hauerwas, “it’s a confusion of categories.” He says, “Giving up plastic is aimed at a different set of problems than what Lent is about. Lent is about confession of sins.”
Others say the anti-plastic initiative is a liberal crusade. “Forget all that personal sin stuff,” writes Matt Philbin. “Environmental Lent is way easier. … You get to wear the penitent’s sackcloth and ashes without taking responsibility for actual bad stuff.”
The Rev. James Martin, editor of America magazine, says Lent is more about one’s relationship with God than making sacrifices. “If you’re confused about what to do for Lent,” he says, “just be kind. You can give something up, but doing something positive is just as important.”
Other Lenten Trends
During Lent 2019, Pope Francis is encouraging Catholics to give up gossip and the temptation to “criticize and destroy” with the tongue. “If, by the end of Lent, we are able to correct this a bit…I assure you [that celebrating] Jesus’ resurrection will be more beautiful,” he says.
For the traditional imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, more churches are offering the nontraditional drive-through approach, also known as “ash and dash.” If people can’t make it to an Ash Wednesday service or would rather not enter a church, they can receive ashes—and prayer, if desired—from the comfort of their vehicle.
In Chicago, some pastors are distributing ashes at train stations, a university and even a Target store. Receiving ashes “only takes a few seconds,” says Pastor Dwayne Grant, “but it can make a big difference in someone’s day.”