Wednesday, Feb 17, know to Christians as Ash Wednesday, began the holy period of Lent, which is the liturgical period leading to Easter, and the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus.
This practice was virtually universal in Christendom until the Protestant Reformation. Some Protestant churches do not observe Lent, but many, such as Lutherans, Methodists and Anglicans, do.
Many modern Protestants consider the observation of Lent to be a choice, rather than an obligation. They may decide to give up a favorite food or drink (e.g. chocolate, alcohol) or activity (e.g., going to the movies, playing video games, etc.) for Lent, or they may instead take on a Lenten discipline such as devotions, volunteering for charity work, and so on.
There are traditionally forty days in Lent which represent the time Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his public ministry, where he endured the temptation of Satan.
Matthew 4:1-4 (New International version)
1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Matthew 9:14-15 (New International version)
14Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
15Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
The three traditional practices to be taken up “with renewed vigor” are prayer (justice towards God), fasting (justice towards self) and “alms-giving” (justice towards neighbor).
From what I have read Lent was traditionally intended as a sorrowful season, with breaks in fasting on Sundays, the day of resurrection, thus Sundays are not counted in the forty days of Lent. Different denominations count the forty days in different ways.
Fasting during Lent was more severe in ancient times than today. Socrates reports that in some places, all animal products were strictly forbidden, while others will permit fish, others permit fish and fowl, others prohibit fruit and eggs, and still others eat only bread.
During the Middle Ages, meat, eggs and dairy products were generally forbidden. Thomas Aquinas argued that “they afford greater pleasure as food [than fish], and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust.”
It was reported that in parts of Germany “great and religious persons,” classified the tail of beavers as “fish” because of its superficial resemblance to a fish and their relative abundance.
In current Western societies the practice is considerably relaxed, though in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Churches abstinence from the food products mentioned above is still commonly practiced, meaning only vegetarian meals are consumed during this time in many Eastern countries.
Being of Irish descent, both grandmothers, I also note that if Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, falls on a Friday during Lent, the local Bishop can dispense with the rules and Catholics can eat meat. There is no mention of giving up alcohol. 🙂
Questions (updated 3:00 am, 02/19) –
For my Christian friends are you taking part in any of the traditional practises of fasting, praying or charity work (with renewed vigor) during Lent, if you observe it?
For anyone else whose faith does not include Lent, is there a period during the year that you set aside for the kind of soul searching, self examination, represented by Lent?
I was a Protestant until my mother died when I was 13. After that I joined my father’s Catholic Church. I gave up religious faith at the age of 18, after my attempt at suicide. I remember the focus was more on the penance, then on soul searching. I can’t remember any of things I gave up for Lent, so they must not have been that important.
If I had to make a sacrifice now the biggest would be to give up bacon. Since I can’t imagine life without bacon, it’s a good thing I am no longer a Catholic. 🙂
I don’t set aside a specific time for self examination, except for the end of the year, where I reappraisal if how much :) I need to improve.