Skip to content

How Presbyterians Do Lent

March 19, 2012

I’m not going to lie.  We’re halfway through the season of Lent and I scoured the internet looking for an “out” this weekend.  I gave up all alcohol for Lent this year and Saturday was St. Patrick’s Day.  And I’m Irish, too!!  Well, about as Irish as a 4th generation Jersey mutt can be anyway.

The point is, I grew weak and wanted an excuse to “undo” Lent for the day.  While most Irish are Catholics, I am really only about one quarter Irish on from my father’s side.  I was raised Presbyterian from the English and German of my mother’s side, though.  So I find myself in a bit of a quandry when it comes to St. Patrick’s Day.  Even those who don’t have the quarter claim to the heritage are a little bit Irish on March 17th.  I know the songs, can do the jig and look great in green.  I LOVE St. Pat’s!  And, in all honesty, I love beer, too.

So I took to the internet to find a loophole research more on Lent and St. Patrick’s Day.  I learned that the Catholic church has given a special dispensation excusing all Catholics from any Lenten fasting on March 17th in order to celebrate St. Patrick.

I went to enough services of Catholic mass with girlfriends while growing up to know that Catholics are MUCH stricter than Presbyterians, so that must be good news for me.  If Catholics are off the hook for Lent on St. Patrick’s Day, then I definitely was, too, right?  Right??

I looked further, but could not find any such “dispensation” for Presbyterians.  Bummer.

With my curiousity sparked, though, I had to continue.  I’ve always been a bit of a nerd when it comes to religion.  One of my favorite classes in college was a Comparative Literature class that studied the religious texts of multiple faiths.  It was enlightening and eye-opening to discover how similar the histories and teachings are across all religions.  I was proud of myself as I realized that I was only thirsting for more knowledge on my own culture, not just thirsting for the flavors of hops and barley.

What I discovered, however, was a bit surprising.  Presbyterians, it turns out, do NOT have to give up anything for Lent.  At all.

Really?  Boy, was I going to talk to my mom about all those years I tried to give up chocolate!

Presbyterians are not required to do anything at all for Lent, it seems.  Many Presbyterian churches encourage a “lifestyle change” to bring you more in touch with your faith, but nothing is absolutely required.  I noticed that, in my own church, our entire Lenten Message Series spoke only about how “Christ Centered is Cross Centered,” and made no mention at all about giving anything up for the season. Well, that at least sounded a lot more like the relaxed Presbyterian faith I grew up with, but it left me with more questions.

If we’re not required to do anything for Lent, why do so many Presbyterians observe Lent through a sacrifice of some sort?  The best answers I found in my research came from a blog by the Presbyterian Pastor, Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts.  In his blog, he discussed the difference between the reformed church’s observance of Lent and the Roman Catholic teachings.  Since Lent is not specifically taught in scripture, Protestants who want to observe and make the season of Lent special are encouraged to add a spiritual discipline to their lives instead of giving up something.

Suddenly, the addition of Lenten small group Bible studies at my church made a whole lot more sense to me than my Lenten sacrifice of giving up all alcohol.

Now that I learned what I was supposed to be doing for Lent, where did that leave me?  If I wanted an “out,” I certainly had one.  I was free from giving up anything for the whole season!  Of course I could enjoy a few pints of Guinness to celebrate my favorite Irish saint.

While the technical answer is “yes,” I realized that wasn’t the right answer for me.  I thought about my reasons for doing anything for Lent and knew that it was less about the letter of the law (or lack thereof), and more about my own connection to my faith.  While there is nothing in the Bible that spells out that Lent reflects Jesus’ sacrifice for us, that is how I always have interpreted it.  If Lent is the lead-up to Easter, when we celebrate the greatest sacrifice in the history of mankind, it makes sense to me that I should experience some small sacrifice to honor the God who gave up His only Son and Jesus who gave up His life for us sinners.

So I was left with this realization.  I could choose to stop my observance of Lent at any time without any change in my faith or standing.  But Jesus was offered a similar “out” on the cross.  He could hop on down at any time and continue to live his life.  All he had to do was say that he wasn’t the Son of God, and he’d be free to go.  This parallel may not reflect the exact teachings of the Presbyterian Church, but that is how I have always viewed Lent.

I decided to stick it out for the last three weeks of the season and continue with my alcohol-free observance.  While my quest  for exemption led to a dry St. Patrick’s Day, I suppose I should be grateful for the education.  Even if it means seltzer is the only bubbly beverage filling my cup.

Next year, I plan to be a good little Presbyterian and add something like a Bible study to celebrate Lent.  I might even add a second lifestyle change and include a toast to Jesus each time I raise my wine glass.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2012 10:56 AM

    Nice piece Stacey! I gave up giving up something for Lent decades ago, and I believe even the Catholic church encourages their parishioners to add some good activity or something that encourages them to focus on their faith, rather than the sacrifice, but what do I know, I’m not Catholic… Still, I like the reflection and the research – that can’t be bad.

    Another great article!


    • March 19, 2012 1:34 PM

      Thanks, Chance. I agree — I was grateful for the reflection and research. Who knew trying to “cheat” would result in learning? Here’s hoping the end result outweighs the intent!

  2. ashleyinnc permalink
    March 19, 2012 12:02 PM

    Love this one. Great work here! I learned, too, which is always a good thing! 🙂

  3. abozza permalink
    March 19, 2012 12:24 PM

    Stacy…too funny. I was wondering why you were giving up something for Lent! Thought maybe you converted! As the sole Presbyterian in a houseful of Catholics, even though I don’t give anything up, I might as well, because I don’t want to indulge in the things they’ve given up in front of them!

    • March 19, 2012 1:31 PM

      Nope, no conversion here — still a Presbyterian, just a clueless one! Even my agnostic husband gives up something for Lent every year along with me. I think it started as a sympathy gesture, but has become a little something more. Or so I like to think. It’s nice to have company on the journey!

  4. Paris permalink
    March 19, 2012 8:30 PM

    Great story Stacey. I love reading your pieces. You came to a very beautiful conclusion as to why you are observing Lent. We Greek Orthodox are supposed to be fasting (no meat, eggs, dairy) for 40 days!!! I try to observe the last week of lent and I will try to make more of an effort to add on days or even weeks in the future.

  5. Matthew Trefz permalink
    February 27, 2016 1:37 PM

    If you feel the need to find a loophole in lent perhaps next time for lent you should give up lent. It is just rote, religious, routine (sorry for the alliteration) if you do it because you feel you have to. Lent should come of your own free will and desire to be self-disciplined in following Jesus not simply because the church makes you do it or because you feel that way. A lot of Christians would do well to give it up if they feel that way. 😦

    • February 27, 2016 2:43 PM

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Matthew. However, I disagree with some of what you are saying. I think the importance of Lent lies in realizing that sacrifice is NOT easy. Searching for a loophole is simply being honest with yourself about the fact that sacrifice is HARD WORK. So is living a life without sin, vice or weakness. As I originally posted, once I did the research and discovered that I had as many outs as I wanted, I chose to stick with it because it meant something to me. If you read the full post, you’d see that the Presbyterian church does not, in fact, require that you give up anything at all.

      But if Christians didn’t even try to give something up for Lent, as you suggest, then I feel many would miss out on the opportunity to discover the strength that lies within. Sure, some will take the loophole, but many will realize that every one of us is imperfect and that is exactly the way we were created. With weaknesses and willpower. But only when things get tough do we get the opportunity to test that willpower and put it to work. Through Lent, we realize how strong Jesus was in the dessert, throughout his life, and finally on the cross. He was the only one to live as a human man to ever withstand every temptation. We can strive to live cleaner, stronger, more godly lives, but we can never be as perfect as Jesus was.

      I do hope that more people attempt to follow some sort of Lenten practice, whether that is attending a new service, keeping a new prayer schedule, or giving something up. If nothing else, the experience keeps God at the forefront of our daily lives, at least for those 40 days, which to me, is a step in the right direction.

  6. February 27, 2016 9:13 PM

    I realize this is an old post, but wanted to share this anyway. I learned something this year that I didn’t know before. Sundays don’t count during Lent since they are days of worship and rest.

  7. Eric Vogelbacher permalink
    March 29, 2017 9:08 AM

    Nice article and great discussion! As a Catholic, I was taught that in Lent, we join Jesus in his 40 days in the desert. He put away the comforts of life and fasted. When we do this, we can grow closer to him. If it was good for him, it is good for us!

    Catholics are encouraged to make changes for the better during the season of Lent. It is a great time to do what Jesus talks about in the gospel of Matthew: prayer, fasting and almsgiving (giving to those in need). You might consider reading my article, What does Lent have to do with Philanthropy at

    God bless!

  8. December 9, 2017 7:46 PM

    Hey Stacey, I’m not sure why you think the bible doesn’t teach us to fast. The gospels do in a few places. Can I encourage you to read this short piece by a former Protestant?

  9. Jim Leach permalink
    March 26, 2018 4:23 PM

    I see from all this that there is no true requirement to give up something for lent. To or not to is up to you and your feelings. I feel that too much concern over this type thing is much ado about nothing. You cannot out give or out love God’s sacrifice of his Son Jesus so place your trust in that.

  10. Michelle permalink
    March 12, 2019 9:07 PM

    Thanks so much for the information. I used to be catholic and now belong to a Presbyterian church. I always observed lent as a catholic but had no idea what to do in my new church.

  11. Edward permalink
    February 29, 2020 2:31 AM

    HI there nice article. Being raised a Presbyterian and a Methodist it all depends on your church. I attend a High Church Presbyterian and though not required to give something up for Lent it is taught about sacrifice and discipline. There are many people in our parish that actually do privately give up something(s) for lent given their choice. And we also have many former Roman Catholics in our congregation. I hope that helps.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: