With Ash Wednesday behind them, online friends of Hollywood screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi braced themselves for what has become a Lenten tradition -- fasting-day manifestos from the witty former nun. "It's a Friday of Lent dear Catholic brethren. And you know what that means," she wrote on Facebook. "Corporate Sacrifice Power Activate! No meat. No braised oxtail. No venison medallions. No veal short ribs. No rabbit sausage. NO MEAT. No Muscovy Duck. No Turkey jerky. No Kangaroo Loin Fillets. nO mEAt. No elk flank steaks. No Wagyu beef. No Chicken Kiev. No MeAt. No meat. No meat. NO MEAT."
In case anyone missed the point, Nicolosi has strong convictions about the tendency these days among Sunday Mass Catholics to assume that centuries of traditions about fasting and the spiritual disciplines of Lent have been erased from the church's teachings and canon law.
Yes, skipping that Friday cheeseburger may seem like a symbolic gesture for many Americans, she said, reached by telephone. Nevertheless, these kinds of small sacrifices add up and they can help believers focus on bigger questions about this life and the life to come.
"The attitude among way too many people these days is that there's no real sin in anything, anywhere, anymore," said Nicolosi, who leads The Story Institute at Azusa Pacific University. "Everyone has taken in the idea that God loves them and then decided that the whole idea of sin and repentance and sacrifice and punishment and hell just doesn't make any sense. ...
"It's like there are no bare minimum membership requirements for being a Catholic and there's no bare minimum requirements for Lent. There's no eternal accountability. Everyone thinks they're basically OK and that everything they want is basically OK."
Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, it seems that more Americans are talking about the 40-plus day penitential season before Easter. And Lent isn't just for Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox anymore. Lent is for bookish evangelicals and all kinds of liberal mainline Protestants, not just Episcopalians. Ministers in a variety of churches are distributing Lenten meditation booklets, planning special retreats and even adding midweek services for truly die-hard worshipers.
But at the heart of this modernized version of Lent is a popular concept that has little or nothing to do with ancient church traditions. This is, of course, the idea of each individual believer choosing to "give up one thing" for Lent and then, apparently, sharing this choice with the world through social media.
A recent glance at the 2014 Twitter Lent Tracker found that the Top 10 items to sacrifice during Lent were school, chocolate, Twitter, swearing, alcohol, soda, online social networking, sweets, fast food and, wait for it, Lent. Giving up meat came in 11th and surrendering coffee was the 14th choice. Those in need of guidance may turn to WhatToGiveUpForLent.com for help.
"To the extent people avoid 'real Lent,' I would suppose it's because of our society's difficulty with the idea of religion making claims on our lives and obligations," said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics for the Catholic.com website.
"To the extent people embrace this 'do-it-yourself Lent,' I would think it's because of two factors: first, our innate religious impulse seeking a way to express itself and, second, the therapeutic, self-help current in our culture."
Meanwhile, the updated online resources in what Akin calls his annual "Lenten rant" continue to note that Catholics are supposed to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, the Fridays of Lent and Good Friday. He added: "The law of abstinence binds everyone who is 14 years old and up unless they have a medical condition that would interfere significantly with abstinence from meat."
Meanwhile, Nicolosi noted, it may be a good thing that the spiritual curious are at least experimenting with the "give up one thing" Lite Lent concept. The problem is that so many Catholics have settled for this radically individualized take on a crucial season in church life.
"Come on, people! It's Lent," she said. "We are supposed to believe in the power of corporate prayer and sacrifice and we should be hearing about that from our priests and bishops. ... It totally frosts my cookies that I have heard more about Lent this year on Fox News than I have from the pulpit of my own church. That's just not right."