Lent tradition loses its meaning

`I don't think Christ needed 40 days... a long weekend would have done'
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THE ritual of abstinence over Lent, which begins this week, has all but disappeared. The British public has given up on giving up.

Strong Catholics may still go without sugar in their tea or give up drink for Lent's 40 days, but what was once a popular cultural observance has largely fallen obsolete.

Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in Britain, admitted that Lent had lost its significance with a large proportion of the population. The traditional period of obligatory fasting and abstinence has been condensed to just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

"A lot of people would prefer to emphasise the positive rather than giving things up," Cardinal Hume said.

"The most important thing about the six weeks of Lent is to take prayer into a person's life."

No Smoking Day, founded originally on Ash Wednesday, was subsequently fixed on the second Wednesday in March. Lent is not perceived as being such an attractive opportunity to break the habit as New Year's Day or Budget day.

Sir Jimmy Savile, who gave up Havana cigars last year, had some sympathy with those who thought Lent was too long.

"I don't think Christ needed 40 days in the desert. A long weekend would have done. It would have made it a lot easier," he said.

"When we were children, we would all put our sweets in a jar during Lent.

"You could see them all inside. At the end of Lent we would eat the lot and make ourselves sick."

Victoria Gillick, anti-abortion campaigner and mother of 10, said she gave up coffee. All the family continue the tradition of giving up something they particularly liked.

"My husband gives up all alcohol," she said. "If you like a glass of wine with a meal, that's a great suffering.

"I am sure that Lent is being less observed.

"People may have been baptised but they do not have a religious sense and have not been introduced to it."

"The whole ethos today is instant gratification," said Dr Geoffrey Scobie, senior lecturer in psychology at Glasgow University.

"The point of anything that is taking place over a long period is difficult for us to justify."

A second factor in the weakening of Lent's customs is that society is much less religious so that the theological understanding of the purpose of sacrifice is missing.

"A lot of these rituals have become meaningless and are in danger of disappearing," Dr Scobie said.

"People are saying `Why 40 days and not 39 or 38?'."

But one of Britain's most prominent Catholics, Lord Longford, still takes it very seriously, said his daughter, the writer Antonia Fraser.

"I said to my mother last year that I hoped that he wasn't going to give up white wine," she said.

"He is in his 90th year and I thought he needed the petrol. In the end he gave up marmalade."