One of the first questions my grade school friends and I used to ask each other in Lent was “What are you giving up?” Everyone understood the meaning of the question, since we were all taught that during Lent we ought to give up something. And it had to be something you liked or cared about; it didn’t work to say, “I’m giving up lima beans for Lent.” (I like lima beans now, but hated them as a kid.) So we commonly gave up candy or soda. If you were really brave, you could give up all sweets, which would take in candy as well as soda. If you were less brave, you might say you were giving up sweetened cereal. There were a lot of ways one could go.
For many Catholics, this practice continued into adulthood. One of my friends gives up beer every year for Lent. My sister still, to my knowledge, gives up chocolate.
At one level, since Lent is a penitential season, there is nothing wrong with the idea of giving up something. However, temporarily giving up something that we will then take up again as soon as Lent is over risks missing the point of what Lent is about, which is a permanent conversion, a continual commitment to, more and more each day, turn our lives over to Jesus. The idea is not to abstain from those things that separate me from God only during Lent, and then to pick them up again when Lent is over, but to root them out forever. Conversions means leaving behind our old ways and embracing life with Christ.
I don’t mean to discourage people from giving up something during Lent. If you are giving up chocolate or Starbucks or time on Facebook or whatever, that is fine. But as we move into the second week of Lent, we might perhaps think a little bit about what it is we can give up for Lent that will foster a true conversion of our hearts.