It’s Pancake Day today and tomorrow Lent officially begins. I’ve never been that bothered about Lent. I’m not Catholic or Anglican so I’ve never been obliged to give anything up, and honestly I’ve never really fully got why people do give stuff up. Except as an excuse to lose weight.
I get asked every year what I’m giving up or what I plan to do for Lent. And every year I say I’m giving up nothing because if the point is to prepare for Easter, and Easter’s a celebration, then surely I need to practise eating chocolate and drinking wine so I’m an expert when that weekend comes, right?
Anyway, I was bored so decided to do a bit of Lent research (aka read the wikipedia entry) to find out why everyone signs up for forty days of righteous self-denial.
First, Lent is complicated.
In the Western church it begins the day after Shrove Tuesday, runs til Easter and you get Sundays off.
But if you live in the Archdiocese of Milan, which follows the Ambrosian Rite (nothing to do with Ambrosia creamed rice or custard, unfortunately), Lent starts on the Sunday six weeks before Easter and every day counts.
In Ethiopia and Eritrea it lasts eight weeks and you get Saturday AND Sunday off.
And in Eastern Europe they do Easter on an entirely different date, which complicates the whole Lent thing even further.
So if you’re giving up drinking, go African, then you at least you can still go out at the weekends.
Our word Lent comes from the Middle English word for Spring, like the German Lenz (rather than Lindt which is a brand of chocolate you could give up for forty days).
That word is linked to the word ‘long’ because spring is when the days start to lengthen again. I normally think of spring as starting at Easter, but it already feels spring-like. The snowdrops are out, so why not declare it the beginning of spring tomorrow and say goodbye to winter, instead of to chocolate?
Wikipedia states: ‘The traditional purpose of Lent is the penitential preparation of the believer – through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving and self-denial’ which makes it sound like a barrel of laughs for forty days.
It goes on to say we are to apply ourselves with renewed vigour to ‘prayer (justice towards God), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbour).’
I much prefer this as a definition – a season of justice. Of taking new and decisive action to give God his rightful place in our lives (whatever you may consider that to be), of redressing balance in our own lives*, and bringing an evenhandedness to our dealings with one another.
Lent sounds to me like a forty day ‘get your life back on track’ sesh paying attention to your spiritual, physical and social wellbeing. You could do that way more imaginatively than just giving something up.
Maybe take up yoga or visit a cathedral or do an Alpha course or meditate or pray?
You could cut back on alcohol or sweet things but you could also practise kindness to yourself where you’re unreasonably harsh? Treat yourself to seeing something beautiful once a week or to buying a cake and lingering over it with a coffee and a book one Saturday instead of running around being busy.
You could make sure you say one encouraging thing to your work colleagues every day or bake a cake for a friend. You could take up an international cause for justice like this one where you live on a pound a day. Join a protest group or a knitting group or anything where you could benefit others with your skills and your company.
Lent. Forty days announcing spring and a season of justice, balance and fairness. That couldn’t be more different to giving up chocolate.
*In my case, I feel there’s a distinct lack of chocolate in my life. I’m pretty hard on myself when it comes to eating – so maybe I should apply some moderation to my life and take up chocolate for Lent?