This Lent, offer up your time

We are coming to the end of Lent, known by religious and non-religious people alike as a season of fasting and practicing personal discipline. Another crucial aspect of this season which is often…

We are coming to the end of Lent, known by religious and non-religious people alike as a season of fasting and practicing personal discipline. Another crucial aspect of this season which is often overlooked, however, is its historical emphasis on almsgiving.

The origins of the Lenten fast can be traced back to the earliest Christians, with the ‘Black Fast’ consisting only of eating one vegetarian meal each day, usually soup. Giving up meat on a Friday remains a common tradition, inspiring the famous British meal of fish and chips. For Christians, fasting directly correlated to giving alms: The money saved from fasting would instead be given to the poor. Instead of eating meat on a Friday, a Christian might eat relatively cheaper fish or vegetables, and therefore have money leftover to give.

Although our ancestors would have been sacrificing a great deal when they gave up their Friday meat, nowadays prices for meat are comparatively low, and often fish is actually more expensive. This renders the Friday meat fast somewhat symbolic, rather than a practical means of budgeting for almsgiving. For this reason, simply spending the money you would otherwise spend on meat would mean giving very little. 

To engage in a sacrifice of a similar proportion to our ancestors, we ought to measure our almsgiving in more universal terms than money — by offering up our time. 

According to the economic historian Gregory Clark, an unskilled labourer in the 1600s England would work 1.52 hours for half a pound of beef, equivalent to around one portion for a modern adult – or one’s daily alms. In 2022, the time to earn a day’s meat has come down to only 8.7 minutes. Put differently, this means that the same number of hours of work that bought 1 pound of beef in the 1600s would have bought 10.5 pounds of beef in 2022. For mutton, it was 7.6 pounds, and for pork, it was 12.1 pounds. On average, we can say that meat is ten times cheaper than it was four centuries ago.

If we made the same sacrifice as our ancestors in terms of time, we should be giving up ten times more. An unskilled worker in the 1600s giving up £3 (today’s money) worth of meat, would be equivalent to an unskilled worker today giving up £30 worth of meat. For skilled workers, the ratios are similar. Suddenly, the amount of almsgiving seems a great deal more, if we sacrifice a similar amount of time to our ancestors.

By sacrificing a similar amount of time, our almsgiving goes a great deal further. Technological advances in agriculture as well as global trade has caused the prices of goods to plummet. The quality of our sacrifices should not plummet with it. The value of our time in terms of goods has increased. It should not be an excuse to give less, it should be an encouragement to allow us to give more.

People in the past were a lot poorer in terms of every physical commodity: Meat, fish, dairy, and sugar would have been luxuries to give up. Nowadays, it is barely worth thinking about. We forget that famine was a frequent occurrence throughout history — there were six in the 1600s alone. Lent, to a Christian, is not necessarily about how much one can afford to give — it is about the quality of one’s sacrifice. Giving from scarcity is far more meaningful than giving from abundance.

In our time of food abundance, food can be a meagre sacrifice to offer as alms. If we reframe our thinking to the amount of time we would have worked to give alms, we would realise that by merely fasting a meal, we are not sacrificing as much as we could. The greater gift would be choosing to give up something that is truly scarce – our time.

This Lent, if you’re looking to give alms, I invite you to give it in terms of time. It’s worth a lot more than you think.