Some people give up candy or soft drinks, while others sacrifice something as major as caffeine or meat.
So far, so good. However, Father Michael Buckley thinks most Roman Catholics, and members of other churches that observe Lent, would find it easier to properly prepare to celebrate Easter if they took an even more drastic step - unplugging their televisions.
"The reality is that most people sacrifice small things at Lent in order to give the season a kind of a tone of self- sacrifice," said Father Buckley of Plainview, Neb., whose "On Media" column appears in about 90 Catholic newspapers. "People give up little things because we have trouble even thinking about making real sacrifices, anymore. Seriously, most Catholics no longer see themselves as different from the culture around them. This really shows up at Lent."
Making a symbolic spiritual change isn't an end in itself, during the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, which this year is on April 4. In Eastern Orthodoxy the season of Great Lent began with Forgiveness Sunday on Feb. 21 and ends with Pascha on April 11.
The goal is to create a zone of quiet for repentance and reflection. The defining signs of Lent are supposed to be fasting, prayer and alms giving, said Father Buckley. However, the season's message is usually drowned out by the noise of daily life. As radical as it sounds, one of the only ways to give Lent a fighting chance is to turn off, or to at least curtail the use of, the TVs scattered throughout most homes.
"You end up with more time for your family, for prayer, for the church, for life in general," he said. "But I think most people would find it much harder to give up television during Lent than to give up meat."
It's hard to fight this kind of battle without practical strategies.
For some people, a good starting point would be spending two or more hours reading for each hour that they watch television, said evangelical media critic Doug LeBlanc, in a recent Moody magazine column. Then, when he does turn on the TV, he has vowed to hit the mute button during every commercial.
"Commercials are not only loud and intrusive," noted LeBlanc, "but they sell a particularly noxious snake oil known as commercialism. I have enough trouble resisting the siren call of narcissism without reinforcing it during every commercial break."
But the big problem is that people use mass media - especially television news, sports, talk radio and music - as pseudo-shopping-mall "white noise" to cover gaps in their lives that hint at loneliness or a need for self-reflection, said LeBlanc. Clearly, many fear silence.
It's also possible to make better decisions about what to watch, as well as how much to watch, said James Breig, a columnist in Credo, an alternative Catholic weekly in Ann Arbor, Mich. Some could begin by listing their five favorite shows and then swearing off one of them, to invest that time in spiritual books. High-quality religious programs also turn up occasionally on history and arts channels and some parishes have begun collecting libraries of videotapes.
And it might help to put a Bible or prayer book near the TV Guide or the remote control.
"In an average week," Breig asked his readers, "which do you do more often: Watch TV or pray? Think of how often you say, 'There's nothing on,' and then watch that nothing."
The overarching problem is that, all too often, church leaders and members choose to ignore the role that all those televisions play in most homes and in the culture at large. Mass media are, in fact, the channels through which most people receive the stories, images and values that shape their lives -- hour after hour, day by day, season after season.
"The THING called a television, the actual box with a screen on it and some speakers, can do some good," said Father Buckley. "The problem is how people let television and the media take over their lives. That's a spiritual issue. I don't think that it's a reach to say that the role television plays in most modern homes is evil."