AS Lent begins again for another year and millions of people around the world decide what to give up or sacrifice for 40 days, it is a small wonder that this Christian tradition is still respected and followed.
In a world of instant gratification where children freak if a game or movie takes more than five seconds to download, where there is a pill for every ill, an ice-cream flavour for every mood and injections to preserve eternal youth, it is reassuring to know that some traditions are still sacred.
While the actual sacrifices have diminished over the years (does giving up red M&Ms really count?), it seems that there have always been disputes on how long the fast should last for. As far back as the 3rd Century, in 203, St Irenaeus wrote to Pope St Victor I, commenting on the celebration of Easter and the differences between practices in the East and the West: "The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their 'day' last 40 hours on end . . ."
Over the years, changes have been made to the Lenten observances, making the practices not only simple but also easy to apply. We are now left to our own devices. We are allowed to choose our 'sacrifices' as we see fit. Fasting is no longer a must. But the 40 days have become set in stone. Ash Wednesday still marks the beginning of Lent, which lasts for 40 full days, not including Sundays.
Lent has, over time, reached out beyond the Christian realm. The idea of Lent can be embraced by anyone, religious or otherwise. "What are you giving up for Lent?" is something you hear from all sorts of people with all kinds of religious beliefs. People seem to warm to the idea of giving something up.
Perhaps it is a sign of our overstuffed world – houses crammed with furniture and electronic goods, wardrobes stuffed full of clothes, bags overflowing with products.
But what do we actually give up these days? During Lent you are supposed to give up something personally important, so its absence will remind you of your purpose in giving it up. But we don't want to give something up that is so important that it disrupts our life too much. So, we give up chocolate, but not our iPhone. Bread, but not the internet. Coffee, but not TV.
Twenty-first-century people are not naturally ascetic, and it shows. Fasting lies at the heart of Lent, and most of us are not fasters, unless we're trying to starve ourselves into a dress. We tend to choose our Lenten sacrifices from a very short menu.
When I was growing up we always gave up sweets. This was not taking the easy road. It was actually very difficult as we lived in a house full of treats. To have our cupboards stripped bare for 40 days was hard going. We felt the loss acutely. It was a sacrifice and it did affect us.
This usually resulted in a gorging on Easter Sunday that would have given the Roman feasts a run for their money as we stuffed Easter eggs down our throats until our stomachs ached.
But at least we did it. At least we gave something up and thought about Jesus for more than five seconds. Nowadays, trying to get a child to give up sweets is like asking Posh Spice to eat a Big Mac meal. Modern children don't understand the concept of sacrifice.
My children almost had nervous breakdowns when I suggested they give up sweets for 40 days. We are still working on what they are actually going to give up . . . they keep suggesting broccoli and long walks.
Ask any child which they prefer, Easter or Christmas, and you can be sure Christmas will come out top. And to be fair, apart form the presents, it's an easier 'holiday' to relate to. Children understand about babies being born. It's harder for them to relate to a man nailed to a cross.
It's no wonder Santa is ahead of the Easter Bunny in their affections. Let's just hope that we can keep the Lenten tradition going . . . even if the sacrifices do get smaller.