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LENTEN EMPHASIS SHIFTS FROM DENIAL TO GIVING

Chocolate. Pizza. Beer. Sex.

When people around here give up something for Lent, plenty give till it hurts.

This year, many are doing without something else: the idea that Christianity's holiest season is about giving something up.

Instead of Lenten goals that concern eating, smoking or exercising, mimicking New Year's resolutions with a whiff of incense, the emphasis now is more on spiritual growth and service to needy people.

Lent, a word derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for spring, is seen by many as a sort of spring cleaning for the soul.

It doesn't have to shake the earth. Thirteen-year-old Sara Nicks, an eighth-grader at St. Amelia's Catholic School in Tonawanda, spent some time earlier this Lent in her room, gathering toys and clothes that she had outgrown. She collected a couple of garbage bags full.

Her parents would take them to local charities, to be given to people less fortunate, Sara explained. "I wanted to do something to help out people who are less fortunate than we are," she said.

Limiting her time in front of the television is tougher, especially with programs like "Party of Five" on. "I'm down to an hour or two a day," she reported.

Though the Catholic Church and its no-meat-on-Friday rule draws the most notice, Lenten observations are actually practiced by many Christian denominations. For 40 days before Christians celebrate Easter, marking Christ's resurrection from the dead, many choose to heighten their spiritual efforts in preparation for the holy day.

"Self-denial for its own sake doesn't mean anything," said Monsignor William Stanton of St. Ambrose Catholic Church in South Buffalo. "What the Lord is trying to tell us is that we have to notice those who are hurting, reach out to the needs of others."

For instance, the parish's confirmation students are helping with Community Table, the South Buffalo food kitchen that feeds the needy. Others are helping with food drives, or trying to increase their prayer life by attending morning Mass each day. Almsgiving is another route, which is why the Catholic Charities fund-raising drive is set for Lent.

"You can go on a diet and lose weight," said Monsignor Stanton. "Lent is a time to focus on our relationship with God."

J.D. LeSeur of Batavia has been going to early-morning communion services at St. James Episcopal Church on Friday during Lent. He has also participated in Bible discussion groups that are examining the various Gospels describing the week before Easter.

A member of the choir, LeSeur said he's been busy learning music for Lenten services as well. "Ash Wednesday's service is one of the most meaningful to me," he said, quoting a passage: "Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return."

In the meantime, LeSeur said, he's trying to cut down on a peculiarly '90s distraction: Web surfing. He's trying to spend less than three hours a day on the computer, "cutting back on my online time," LeSeur said.

There's a bigger point at stake than wasting time, he said. Lent is supposed to be a time of inner development, not worldly entertainments.

"I hope to grow spiritually, and increase communication within my family," he said. "I already eat fish on Friday throughout the year."

At St. Peter's United Church of Christ in West Seneca, the Rev. Steve Aschmann said his church's concept of Lent focuses on helping people with the challenges of life. He likened the approach to that of the man who the Bible said carried Christ's wooden cross to the site of his crucifixion by Roman soldiers.

Whether it's someone who has had a death in the family or someone dealing with an illness, "we look for people who need our help and help them pick up their crosses," Mr. Aschmann said.

For Orthodox Christians like J. Arthur Kawa, Lent lasts about the same 40 days, though its beginning and its celebration of Easter, called Pascha, fall a week later, calculated by the ancient Julian calendar.

Kawa, who attends SS. Theodore Orthodox Church in Williamsville, said the goal is "to ask God's grace to become more like him, and to actually know him."

Unlike most churches, the Orthodox make a point of practicing dietary restrictions in combination with an increased prayer life, churchgoing, reflection and restraint in entertainment. The faithful are urged to forgo meat, fish and dairy products, as well as they can, for Lent.

Food isn't the center of Lent, but a tool to focus attention on the many forms of gluttony in one's life, Kawa said. "You're trying to fulfill the model that God gave to us, because he made promises to us and this is the route he prescribed for us."

As well as fasting from food, Kawa said, one should also fast from ungodly thoughts and behaviors, and stuff one's self with spiritual reading and prayer.

Though it can seem like a daunting regimen, "I'm glad when Lent comes around," Kawa said. "I'm getting better at doing bad things. Lent gives me a chance to set things right."