“Lent, Fasting, and the Longer Days”
by Rev. George Martzen
Ready for warmer weather?
Spring begins this year on March 20 with the vernal equinox. That’s the magic day that happens twice a year when the sun passes over the equator, making it spring in one hemisphere and autumn in the other. Here in North America we are slowly moving away from the long nights of mid-December back to the warmer sunny days of spring, while southern hemisphere countries like Australia are slipping into fall weather.
Overlapping the natural season of spring is the church season of Lent, a 40 day period which begins before the equinox but concludes well into spring with the holy day of Easter.
We rightly associate Lent with spiritual disciplines like fasting, prayer, acts of charity and penance. Historically that was especially expected of baptismal candidates and those who may have slipped away from the faith, in order to be received into the fellowship on Easter morning. Various European traditions developed over the centuries that prohibited the eating especially of fatty things like meat, eggs and milk during Lent. That led to other interesting traditions to help people supposedly get rid of the excess food in their household before Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten fast.
The English tradition of Shrove Tuesday is a pancake dinner the night before Ash Wednesday to consume the remaining eggs, milk and other “rich foods” in the household before the austerity of Lent. Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and Carnival (from carne – meat) and similar variations are celebrated in many countries from France and Italy to South America and New Orleans. They may involve more excesses than just eating up the remaining eggs and fat. So we tend to picture the Lenten season in terms of a contrast between shameless excesses and austere self-denial. While protestant Christians, including Methodists, have been less inclined to follow these traditions, we still may consider fasting from chocolate, sweets, alcohol, fast food or certain social networks. Even so, it’s not very easy to fast if your friends and family members are not fasting.
I suggest a slightly different approach, based on the meaning of the word “Lenten.” The word probably derives from an older Germanic word that simply means “lengthen.” Lent is essentially about the lengthening of the days as we approach spring. With new seedlings sprouting, dormant trees awakening and bright flowers blooming, our senses are also reviving after the winter darkness. So we should fast from foods or activities that hinder our wellbeing, so we can put more of ourselves into that which helps us to flourish. As the days lengthen consider fasts that promote spiritual, physical and social health. That may include reducing prepared foods in order to feast on fresh vegetables from the garden, or limiting TV or social networking to give more time for conversation or letter writing.
Isaiah 58 also talks about fasting as socially redemptive. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” So whatever you do this Lent, let your days be lengthened as you cut back on foods and activities that limit your wellbeing, and make time for what is important. Make time for our Ash Wednesday service, at 7 p.m. on March 1, pick up your Lenten devotional and commit this season to God.