Lent: No, It's Not the Vatican Diet Plan

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The tired, lame joke used to pop about annually this time of year among the lapsed Catholics in my family. "I'm giving up watermelon for Lent," assorted uncles would say with a grin.

Har-har. Get it? Watermelon isn't in season during Lent, so as sacrifices go...

Yeah, those old boys were cards, skating right on the cutting edge of humor.

Half-witticisms aside, giving up a favorite foodstuff -- chocolate, coffee, desserts, even booze for those whose souls need a really good scrubbing -- is a common practice among many Christians, which got City of Ate wondering: Is passing up a daily Reese's Cup for a few weeks really an appropriate way to celebrate the Lenten season, which begins on Ash Wednesday, March 9? Is avoiding coffee -- heaven help us -- too much to ask?

That depends, says Auxiliary Bishop Douglas Deshotel, vicar general of Dallas' Roman Catholic Diocese. Lent is about what you have in your heart, not what you put in your gullet.

Celebrated by Roman Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant churches, Lent is a period of prayer and penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It mirrors the 40 days the Christian gospels say Jesus fasted in the desert -- and was tempted by the devil -- before beginning his public ministry. "He shows us by his own life how to turn away from evil and not be slaves to our own bodily appetites and live in freedom," Deshotel says, hence the practice of making a personal sacrifice some sort during Lent.

Turning away from a favorite, benign temptation is an exercise in free will that reminds believers to point that will toward God. Passing on a favorite snack "doesn't trivialize" Lent, Deshotel says, but viewing the season chiefly as a chance to shed a few pounds misses its higher purpose. And while self-denial might be freeing, the point of sacrifice is to remind believers to try to be more godly, not less. "If giving things up makes you so grouchy and mean-spirited...you ought to have the coffee."

"It doesn't have to be food, you know," Deshotel adds. Some believers mark the season by devoting more time to charitable acts instead.

Still, there is one undeniable link between food and Lent -- Catholics are expected to avoid eating meat on the Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. "Long John Silvers treats us very nice during Lent," Deshotel says.

Depending on your opinion of Long John Silvers, that may be more penance than even the faithful should endure, but luckily, there are other options. Aw Shucks & Big Shucks restaurants, for example, will serve grilled tilapia with rice and veggies for $8.95 on Fridays during Lent. That's two $2 off the regular price, which, ahem, would fit nicely in the collection plate on Sunday, perhaps. And Taco Cabana restaurants sent around a press release last week announcing that through mid-April the chain will bring back its "fan favorite" shrimp Tampico, "just in time for the Lenten season."

Yes, in a miracle of modern marketing, even a period penance, prayer and sacrifice can be turned into an opportunity to make a buck. (To be fair, Taco Cabana is based in heavily Catholic San Antonio, and anyone who has ever tried to get a lunch table at a fish restaurant in there on a Lenten Friday can appreciate the chain's P.R. savvy.)

Even in Dallas, whose diocese is home to 1.2 million Catholics, Lent is a boom time for fish sellers. Jon Alexis, owner of T.J.'s Fresh Seafood Market, estimates his Friday sales rise about 10 percent during Lent. (It doesn't hurt that his market is not far from Jesuit Prep and the shop is a school booster.)

"It's huge. It's great," Alexis says. "I wish every religion commanded people to eat fish."

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