Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

STUFF 2013 what is lent?

I once wrote the following for my parishioners who asked me whether or not they should fast during Lent.  Someone recently asked for my take on Lent, so I figured I'd do a little cutting and pasting . . .

Lent & You, Q & A,
Fr. George Baum, 2010

So what is Lent, anyway?  
That is such a good question.  And I wish it had a short answer.  But part of the problem in answering that question comes in having to ask, what is Lent, when?  Which period of history are we talking about here?  As it turns out, Lent is a slippery subject, on a long timeline, and the fasting that many Christians associate with Lent is even more difficult to get hold of.  But let’s start back at the beginning . . .

Yes, let’s.  Some of my friends say giving up things for Lent isn’t Biblical.  But, isn’t it in the Bible?
Well, no.  The word Lent comes to us by way of the Anglo-Saxon words lencten (or Spring) and lenctentid (Springtide, and the month now called March).  You can probably see a connection to lengthening, just as the days start to do in the month of March.  As with so many of our Christian customs, Lent has its origins in pagan or secular places and phrases.

So how come Lent means I have to give up chocolate?
Whoa, now.  Not so fast there!  We’ve got to work slowly.  From the earliest times (i.e. the first Century after Jesus), fasting was part of the preparation for candidates for baptism, and those baptisms always happened at the Vigil of Easter (which is still the best day for a baptism—at least in the Episcopal Church).  As part of a spiritual discipline leading up to this Sacrament, the candidates for baptism would fast for the 40 hours Jesus was in the tomb.  (For instance, from Friday at 3pm to Sunday at 7am, though time was a little more fluid then.) 

So, if I’m already baptized, why shouldn’t I eat meat on Fridays?
Again, that’s a little early in the story.  The council of Nicea in 325AD starting talking about extending that pre-Easter fasting to a 40-day period.  By this time, the fasting had spread to include the entire Church, which under Constantine meant the entire world—for our purposes, anyway.  In about 600AD, Gregory the Great declared that everyone must fast for 40 days (not including Sundays), which meant starting Lent on a Wednesday.  Pope Gregory also introduced the idea of putting ashes on people’s foreheads at the start of Lent, in order to remind them “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

But that didn’t answer my question. Why should I fast in 2010AD? 
Hold on a minute.  We’ve still got 1400 years to cover.  So, in these earlier times, fasting was severe, with only one meal each evening, and no fish or animal products throughout the entire 40 days.  By the 800’s, people were allowed to eat after 3pm each day.  By the 1400’s, they could eat after noon.  Over time, it was permissible to eat certain foods, like fish during Lent.  By the time we got to 1966, the Roman Catholic Church declared that Christians need only to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  (However, the Eastern Orthodox Church has a different history on all this, and have maintained something more like the original vigor of the Roman Church.)

But that still doesn’t answer the question.  What does Lent have to do with me? 
Okay, so we went from a brief period of fasting before baptism, to a lengthy period of fasting before baptism, to a lengthy period of fasting for everybody, to a brief period of fasting for everybody.  And now we’re ready to approach what you really want to talk about . . . YOU! 

Right!  So, like I said, what does Lent mean for me? 
Well, Lent can mean a lot of things for you.  Let’s start with where we are now.  In our current Lenten emphasis, the Church asks us to focus on three things during Lent: self-examination, self-denial, and self-improvement.  (All of which, on the surface, seem to be about YOU!)  In fact, on Ash Wednesday, you’ll hear me remind you of this history of Lenten devotion, and then invite you to observe “a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  (BCP pg 265)

Um, can you break that down for me?  
 Gladly.  Let’s take them one at a time . . .

--Self-examination:  This is just what it sounds like, but with special emphasis on the spiritual side of you.  Lent is a time to stop and take inventory of where you are in your spiritual life.  Hopefully, you’re assured enough of your insoluble bond to God through baptism to do this.  And if you’re not, come and talk to me first, before you send yourself into a Lenten Depression!

--Self-denial:  This is the part most people think of when they think of Lent.  Typically, self-denial involves giving something up, as a way of reminding us of our reliance on God.  But it’s important to tie any kind of self-denial to this reminder.  Otherwise, you’re just giving yourself pointless suffering.  For instance, if you decide to give up chocolate for Lent, when you find yourself craving chocolate, turn your focus to God’s greater gifts, like life and salvation. 

--Self-improvement:  here, we’re talking about taking something on, rather than giving something up.  For example, commit yourself to using the Forward Day By Day books that are available in the back of the church each Sunday.  Or commit yourself to reading the Bible (or some spiritual book) during the 40 days of Lent.  The point of Lenten self-improvement is to train ourselves to focus on God.

+++These three together, self-examination, self-denial, and self-improvement are all geared toward getting us to STOP focusing on ourselves, and start focusing on God, by repentance, discipline, and living full lives.  And, focusing on those three things takes us back to the essentials of our baptismal covenant, where we promise to persevere in resisting evil, repentance, and proclaiming God’s word.

Wait!  Aren’t those the vows we renew at the Vigil of Easter?
That is exactly right!  So, you see?  The forty days of Lent really are preparing you for baptism.  You and I renew our baptismal vows every year on that night, the very night when we hear “this is the night.”  Lent is a season for you to prepare for the remembrance of your baptism, which is the bond that holds your firmly in the hand of God, and allows you to approach with confidence this special season of self-examination, self-denial, and self-improvement.