Bible, rosary and crucifix.
Bible, rosary and crucifix. (The Associated Press)

GIVE UP: Lent begins today, a somber and sober time for Catholics and the Lesser Christians - and, for that matter, anyone who wants to play along. It's time to make up your mind what cherished vice or nicety you want to jettison from your life for the Lenten season, which goes through Easter (March 31).

It's a somber and penitential period for many Christians, when sacrifices, both voluntary and mandatory, are made. Drinkers give up drinking, smokers give up smoking, the pope gives up pope-ing.

In recent times, even humanists and other members of the great secular unwashed have opted to play along, briefly giving up bad habits and other pleasures, or taking up such odious tasks as working out at the gym or performing acts of kindness during the 40 or 46 days of Lent - the number of days varies depending on how you want to observe the season. Catholics, for instance, get Sundays off, because each Sunday in Catholicism is a mini-Easter celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

So, for Catholics, it's a brisk 40 days of abstinence, while secularists, with nothing to celebrate on Sundays other than a new episode of "Downton Abbey," are advised to hold up their end of their bargain with themselves every day between now and Easter. For them, it's little more than a mini New Year's resolution anyway, a chance to flex their self-control pecs.

Because much of Lenten abstinence is voluntary, there are no rules, and you are free to riddle your sacrificial contract with riders and loopholes.


Advertisement

How far should you go in terms of sacrifice? As our guilt-dispensing Byzantine Catholic stepmom explained to us when we were little, "Well, I guess it depends how grateful you are for Christ dying for your sins and for the boundless blessings you've received." Good point. We gave up ketchup.

Which leads to loopholes in the Lenten law. We gave up ketchup except when Dad barbecued steak. When our folks bought steak, it wasn't a cause for celebration. It was a cause for fear. Our folks have preceded us in death, so there's no way to know now where they bought their steaks, but we're pretty sure it wasn't in any of the conventional steak-buying places, like a market. It had to be someplace like a rendering plant, selected from the pile where they threw carcasses deemed too tough to be used for boots and Australian rules footballs.

Every bite was a battle against strangulation, with the smart money on strangulation. We'd chew each piece 75 times before putting our trust in Our Lord and Savior and trying to swallow. After hundreds of brushes with death, we eventually learned that ketchup was necessary not so much for flavor enhancement as for something we can't think of a name for other than steak-swallowing lubricant. Sorry.

Other devout abstainers build exit strategies into their Lenten give-ups or take-ups. No TV except for Kings games; no meat except bacon; no alcohol except martinis; no Schedule II drugs except Hydrocodone; etc.

In some years, people have kept the St. Patrick's Day wild card in their back pocket, allowing themselves an interlude of debauchery in the midst of the Lenten season. This year, you can save your one-eyed jack for another day, because St. Patrick's Day falls on a Lenten Sunday this year.

There's plenty of mandatory sacrifices that must be made by Catholics (although theographists such as ourself have struggled for years over whether a sacrifice can be mandatory). Catholics, for instance, have to abstain from meat on Fridays. That's nonnegotiable except in rare instances in which a person will die unless he gets meat on Friday. Catholics, though, even have a way out of this one, but only if they "forget" that it's Friday and they have meat, in which case they can make up for their lapse by performing a good deed, which can be just about anything from giving a hobo a quarter to helping your friend move a piano.

Whatever you choose to do during Lent, try to enjoy yourself, just not as much as usual. As for us, we still haven't decided what to give up for the next 40 (or so) days.

Maybe give up sarcasm.

More probably, ketchup.

tim.grobaty@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2116 or twitter.com/grobaty