I will begin this post with a thank you to all my regular readers and subscribers for your faithful support and interest.
We are now in the season of Lent, which will end on Easter Sunday, April 12. The word “Lent” in English is derived from Old English lencten, referring to the time when days lengthen or a long period. Latin-based languages such as French derive their world for the season from the Latin word for forty – quadraginta – of fortieth – quadragesima, e.g. – French la Carême.
During this season, i.e. for the next five or six posts, we will be taking a break from the usual fare of this blog. There will not be a fixed theme, except along the line of what our topic today indicates – things appropriate to Lent.
Once upon a few generations ago in the West, this season of about forty days was publicly acknowledged and discussed as a time to dial back our usual bent towards self-concern and self-indulgence. It was even mentioned in public institutions and political and cultural events to encourage people to “get a grip” on their bad habits and help one another out. The purpose was to commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The forty days was as an imitation of Jesus’s time in the wilderness before he set out on his public ministry.
Whether you observe the traditions of Christianity or not, dialing back and slowing down, taking the focus off oneself for a season, deliberately finding a time and some self-discipline to regularly turn aside from “the usual” – the pursuit of self-fulfillment for good ole Number One – cannot be a bad thing. Other faiths do it and encourage it too (Ramadan in Islam is a prominent example), and even the sages of the health and well-being industry who promote forms of alternative spiritualities or secularized forms of such things (yoga is the most common) tell us that periodic fasting and self-denial is a good thing, especially when we mix in some genuine altruism to get our heads out of our own belly-buttons.
Many people set themselves a goal of “fasting” in some way during this time. In the “old days” when most people in the West were at least nominal Christians, this meant doing without some favourite foods, for example. Many people still do this, and add in more focused attention to daily prayer, meditation, and devotional reading. Other forms of “fasting” might be setting aside forms of personal entertainment, abstaining from social media obsession, or watching less or even no Television or videos.
Now we live in a culture which hardly registers Lent as a blip. There is a good side to this. As a Pastor friend pointed out when we were talking about church attendance and declining numbers, the good part of this is that the people who are in church or “walking the walk” these days are there because they want to be and are committed.
Some dominations and affiliations within the “Church” (I use the word here in its “catholic” sense of “universal” – the One Church which crosses all the denominational boundaries and enfolds everyone who follows Jesus, regardless of their affiliation as “Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, etc.” – are more deliberate and formal about this whole Lenten season and making it a real observance. I encourage those of you in that persuasion to “go for it” with all your might. For others who may have more of a hesitation about being so deliberate and intentional about “observing days and seasons” as if they can create more godliness in us or impress God somehow, I would encourage them to see this season as an opportunity to more consciously implement the kinds of disciplines their background values.
No one can compel us individualist Western Christians of the 21st Century to do much of anything “religious” these days. We love to say that faith and salvation are an individual choice, “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Coercion and manipulation by guilt or social pressure are pretty much done for most churches and individuals in North America and Europe. All the statistics about religious adherence and practice demonstrate this. But our self-indulgence and claim to individual rights cross into every aspect of how we live our lives. Lent is one of those.
We might say that we have the same choices to make every day God gives us to continue enjoying (or enduring) our lives. True enough. But if all days are the same, no day is special. The truth is, we really don’t live the rest of our lives that way at all. We all want and need to feel unique and special, to have special occasions and days.
Our cultural hypocrisy then excludes this from the religious and spiritual side of our humanity. And this is just another manifestation of what has occurred over the last century. Despite all the attempts to remove religion and spirituality (the old Enlightenment progressive code-language for Christianity in particular) from the public sphere, humans are innately spiritual, even those of atheistic bent. There is a hunger and need at our very core. We deny it at our peril.
The point of Lent is to stop denying it and awaken it, encourage it to search for what can finally bring us to real fulfillment – to set aside the counterfeits that can never fill the hole in our soul.
Of that, more next time.