When the Most Reverend Michael Curry was a boy, he gave up Bazooka bubble gum for Lent, just as many Christian children give up chocolate or some other candy.
Now, as presiding bishop and primate of The Episcopal Church, Curry sees more clearly what Lent means.
“It’s bigger than a Hershey bar,” he said. The 40 days of prayer, fasting and giving to others started as preparation for people joining the church at Easter. But the season has been broadened to include all Christians seeking a deeper connection to their faith.
According to the Pew Research Centre’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 63% of Americans are Christians. And for them, Lent “can be a time for real spiritual renewal,” Curry said.
The period leading up to Easter mirrors the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness praying, fasting and getting ready for his ministry. American Christians echo those efforts with various approaches. They may give up bad habits, abstain from some foods or forms of entertainment, take Bible study classes, serve others or make charitable donations.
Lent is “spring cleaning for the soul,” and the abstinence — whether from candy, social media or whatever a person chooses to give up — is a way of getting rid of distractions that take away from spiritual awareness, said Ryan Dunn, minister of online engagement for the United Methodist Church, which has 30,000 churches in the U.S.
Curry says practicing willpower helps one “become aware of how selfishness can lead us astray and how it rises up within us.”
Many Catholic parishes in America offer meatless Friday dinners in their gathering halls, which buzz with the activity of parishioners volunteering, kids darting around and adults chatting. Parishioners join a devotional exercise called Stations of the Cross, a way to reflect on the last events of Jesus’ life.
Lenten activities culminate with Holy Week, which this year begins with Palm Sunday on April 2 and leads up to Easter on April 9. Holy Week is packed with extra services, and church pews fill with people.
Lenten observations can refocus Christians, Curry said, relating the New Testament story of Jesus walking on water toward his disciples, who were in a boat and struggling against dangerous winds. “That’s what Lent is trying to teach you to do — walk on the water in a storm, which life often is,” he said.