From Ash Wednesday to Easter, many Christians solemnly mark their foreheads with ash from a burned palm leaf, "fasting" (or abstaining from certain foods or physical pleasures for forty days). This is done, in part, to imitate Jesus' forty-day fast in the wilderness. Some give up chocolate. Some give up smoking. Some give up eating this or that. All of this to prepare for Easter?
In 360 AD, the Council of Laodicean officially mandated that Lent be observed. At first, it was observed for a few days. Later, it was extended to the forty-day period which we know today. From the ninth century onward the emphasis of Lent moved away from fasting to performing "penitential works." Today, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Lent is "fasting from sin and from vice...forsaking sin and sinful ways." It is a season "for penance, which means sorrow for sin and conversion to God." Is this a preparation for Easter?
The word "Lent" comes from the Anglo-Saxon "Lencten" meaning "spring." Some say the forty-day abstinence idea was borrowed from the worshippers of the Babylonian goddess, Tammuz. (The Bible mentions Tammuz in the book of Ezekiel). Tammuz, like many other pagan deities, was one who died and rose again, an event celebrated as the Feast of Tammuz (in the month of June). Some would argue that the church took this pagan celebration (as the church did with many other pagan celebrations) and Christianized it as our season of Lent and our celebration of Easter.
So there you have it in a nutshell: the season of Lent. I'm not very keen on observing Lent in any of the traditional ways. Mardi Gras has always turned me off--not as a celebration or a party (I'm all for celebrations and parties)--but as a prelude to Lent. Shrove Tuesday with "all you can eat pancakes" likewise strikes me as strange. Both have the theme: eat, drink, and be merry, before you have to become religious. Gorge yourself before you have to enter into a time of fasting and abstinence. I'm all for a party and I'm all for pancakes, but I'd prefer that it not be a party to prepare us for something worse tomorrow. I'd rather we just kept on partying and eating pancakes!
I've never been able to deal with the concept of "giving up" chocolate or any other mundane habit as somehow a preparation for Easter. It doesn't make sense to me.
I would suggest that rather than giving something up for Lent, we ought, as Christians, to take something on. Instead of giving up chocolate, why not give more energy to some worthy cause, or determine to love more deeply, or to take responsibility for some new form of action that will make the world a better place. Taking on something new and meaningful in Lent, however, doesn't seem to be as exciting as parading around and patting oneself on the back announcing the giving up of chocolate for forty days.
God did not design fasting as a tool for penance, "beating yourself up" or for developing more "will-power." God speaks through the prophet Isaiah (58:5ff, NEB) saying: "Is this the kind of fast I require? A day when you afflict your soul? Is it to bow down your head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes over yourself? Do you call this a fast? This is the fast I have chosen for you, to loose the bonds of injustice, to untie the knots of the yoke, to set free those who are oppressed, tearing off every yoke and sharing your food with the hungry. Then (God says) you light will break forth like the dawn," or in other words, you'll be able to grapple a little better with the meaning of Easter. Lent to do penance or lent to be spent?