Celebrating the Power of Lent for 25 Years

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March 16, 2011

Every year around this time, a lot of Mennonites across Canada do something very un-Mennonite, they give something up for Lent.  The idea behind the modern Lenten fast, where people give up something they like, so that when they feel the urge to have that thing, they are supposed to think about God and their reliance on God.  It's usually most effective if the thing you're giving up is something you've sorta convinced yourself that you need or are semi-addicted to.  The problem of course is that it requires you to admit that you are half addicted to something.

I usually don't participate in the Lenten fast in any way, but I decided that this year i would give up french fries.  I probably am half-addicted to them anyway.  Now this wouldn't be a big accomplishment for a lot of people, and I've already resolved (successfully so far) not to eat at any of McDonalds, Taco Bell, KFC and Wendy's in 2011.  So, it was going well and I was feeling resolved to live it out, until this past weekend when I went to White Spot and the only thing on the menu I felt like having was a burger, which came with either a Caesar salad for extra money, or unlimited french fries.  So I broke my fast.

I don't feel particularly convicted about this lapse in judgment.  As an Anabaptist, i come from a proud tradition of Lent non-observers.  In fact, many scholars have pinpointed the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement to a group of people in Zurich, publicly and intentionally breaking the Lenten fast and eating sausages together.  I can't think of a better name for a Mennonite/Anabaptist basketball team than "Fast Breakers" but I'm not sure what the logo would look like.  Breaking the Lenten fast should perhaps be a greater reminder of our own weakness and reliance on God.  Anabaptists have long contended though that if there is something you can give up in your life to bring you closer to God, you should give it up no matter what time of year it is and not start up using it again 40 days later.

There are a few things that are given up more often than french fries to.  In high school I knew a lot of girls who gave up chocolate for Lent, which worked out nicely so that they could binge on the stuff as soon as Easter rolled around.  But there is perhaps no greater quasi-addiction than coffee.

Coffee is exactly the kind of thing that people should give up for Lent, it's not particularly sinful on it's own, and the cravings one might get for it would be a great reminder of one's relationship with God too.  But besides the addiction most people refuse to admit they have, there is something that interfere's willingness to give up coffee at this time of year.

Historically there has been a dip in coffee sales at this time of year.  Could it be because of Lent?  To combat this dip, Tim Hortons launched a promotional campaign 25 years ago.  It was so successful that it has been running every year since then.  It does make me wonder, is it worth the cost to Tim Hortons?  The cost of extra advertising and all the prizes and fraud prevention stuff can't really generate that much extra sales can it?  Especially since coffee and their brand of coffee in particular are so deeply engrained into the Canadian psyche.

Religious institutions are continually losing their grip on societal influence in this country, particularly the ones that would advocate a ritual Lenten observance.  Still, Lent has a transcendent power, even among people outside of Christian institutional religion.  If Tim Hortons gave up their Roll up the Rim campaign, more people would consider giving up coffee for Lent.  Since the company and it's shareholders can't afford interruptions in the profits, they can't stop the promotion because people might use Lent or any other reason to stop drinking their coffee.  Is this an example of businesses interfering with Christian practice or a story of Christian spirituality working under the surface?  I like to think it's the latter.

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