As we are in the season of Lent, which this year runs from March 6-April 18, and one of my co-workers is a Catholic who always gives up sweet treats this time of year, the subject of Lenten traditions has been on my mind.
As most people are aware, Lent is a period of fasting and penance leading up to Easter. The season is rooted in the 40-day fast of Jesus in the wilderness. Catholic Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and ends right before the evening Masses of Holy Thursday. Of course, not just Catholics observe Lent: Orthodox Christians and many Protestants benefit from this annual season of sacrifice and simplicity. Even some non-Christians observe it as a period of improvement and reflection. By depriving ourselves of some small pleasure or indulgence we can offer that sacrifice up to God. Or we might “give up” a bad habit as a way of positively shaping our life.
Many Christians commemorate Lent with various acts of abstention and austerity – traditionally abstaining from eating meat, but there are many variants. People tend to view Lent in a variety of ways. For some, it is a period of going on a diet; for others, it is when Catholic co-workers show up to work with ashes on their heads, and fast-food restaurants start selling fish sandwiches. The three pillars of Lent are fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
Lent, which comes from the Teutonic (Germanic) word for springtime, can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning. Historically, the earliest fasts of Lent tended to be very strict, allowing one meal a day, and even then, meats, eggs, and other indulgences were forbidden. Many Eastern Churches still follow this today. Now, in most Western Churches, only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are enjoined as strict fast days, but Fridays are set aside for abstinence from meat. “Meatless Fridays” are still an important part of the Lenten season for many Catholics, including my co-worker. Since it is believed Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross on a Friday, Christians from the very beginning have set aside that day to unite their sufferings to Jesus. This led the Church to recognize every Friday as a “Good Friday” where Christians can remember Christ’s passion, and for much of the Church’s history, meat was singled out as a worthy sacrifice on account of its association with feasts and celebrations. In most ancient cultures meat was considered a delicacy and the “fattened calf” was not slaughtered unless there was something to celebrate. Eating meat on a Friday to “celebrate” the death of Christ just didn’t seem right to the early church.
As an interesting aside, historically in some areas of northern Europe, beaver tail was considered “fish” and therefore eligible to be eaten during the meat-eschewing period. Some also say the same thing about Michigan muskrats, which can also be eaten during Lent because although they are mammals, they swim, which apparently qualifies them for fish status during the Lenten season! Personally, I would rather stick to vegetables than try this delicacy. There is a lot more information at www.churchyear.net
So, remembering that many people give up things that will really, really be missed, what are some of the most popular things that people give up at Lent in the 21st century?
- Top of the list is giving up sweet things – either all sugar or specific treats like chocolate, cakes, sugar and cream in coffee, etc.
- For those that don’t have a sweet tooth, giving up fast food, pizza, chips or even salt is a fairly common option
- Giving up smoking, alcohol or caffeine are also common sacrifices made during Lent and some people take the opportunity to break the habit for good
- There is an increasing trend for people to sign off social media for the 40 days of Lent or – shock, horror! – even spend their non-work time AWAY FROM THEIR SMARTPHONES
- Giving up TV (some people make an exception for news programs but deny themselves anything frivolous) or trashy magazines is still a sacrifice many choose to make with the intention of reading the Bible or doing something worthier during the time freed up
- Giving up some sleep, such as setting the alarm for half an hour earlier and spending that extra time in prayer and meditation
- Stop bad habits like gossip, sarcasm or running late – again, maybe as the start to lifelong good habits
There are obscure and less obvious self-denying behaviors out there which just a brief internet search will reveal: turning off the car radio, forgoing designer brands, cutting out karaoke, sleeping without a pillow and more! So, whatever your personal views or practices are during the Lenten season, I wish you luck and perseverance.
I will leave you with an amusing quote from one of my heroes, Benjamin Franklin: “Those have a short Lent who owe money to be paid at Easter”.
God bless America!
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