Monday, 23 February 2015

What is the Point of Lent?

Saint John Chrysostom wrote "And so I desire to fix three precepts in your mind so that you may accomplish them during the fast: (1) to speak ill of no one, (2) to hold no one for an enemy, and (3) to expel from your mouth altogether the evil habit of swearing." 
   Wouldn't it be marvellous if everyone gave up swearing for Lent? Even on TV  - on the internet  - when using their mobiles in cafés -and on crowded buses and trains? 

  It is a curious fact that the words Lent and lentil, which look as if they might be related etymologically, are not. Not in any way at all. It would be perfectly logical for the useful vegetable which has long been a fasting food, to give its name to the season. But Lent comes from an Old English word meaning Spring, the time when days lengthen. And lentil comes from the Latin lens, lentis, or to be exact from its diminutive lenticula. The word has no connection with Lent, only with the optical lens, so named because it is flat on one side and round on the other. 
  Not all Christians observe Lent, although it has been part of the Christian calendar for two millennia. The idea was to emulate Christ's forty days of hunger in the wilderness. In the Middle Ages, the churches made Lent a time of very strict abstinence. Rome decreed that meat, fish and fowl were all banned throughout Lent, along with dairy products, sugar, honey, wine, mead, music, dancing, having connubial relations and decorating the house with flowers. The rich ignored the bans on fish and most other things but there were huge fines if you were caught eating meat during Lent  - equivalent to a labourer's wage for three months. Many Elizabethan housewives laboured to grind almonds to make a substitute for milk during Lent. One thing they couldn't ban was ale, as the water was, in the main, undrinkable, so a tankard of home brew would console you for such a fearsome degree of abstinence
   In Ethiopia, the strictest form of the Lenten fast was imposed : nothing but bread, water and salt. In Russia, traditional Lenten foods include tolokno a dish of baked oats; rye bread; beetroot soup; and pickled mushrooms. Perhaps with a bit of vodka? In Greece the Lenten diet would feature bean soup, boiled spinach and stuffed vine leaves. In Spain a favourite dish was chick-pea and pimento stew. The moral of that is...if you live in Russia, move to Spain.
   At the Reformation the bolder Protestants discarded Lent as just another vestige of superstitious idolatry. Calvin condemned it and said it was unnecessary. But in a lesser form, it has lingered on, because we feel instinctively that periods of moderation and sobriety are part of a balanced life. Nowadays, we may be more inclined to call it self-discipline, de-tox, or just a weight-reduction diet, but we know it is wisdom not always to indulge. And also, don't forget, that when you stop going without, and start indulging again, you will do so with renewed relish. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. An interesting overview of Lent's history. However, as a 'son' of 'bold Calvin', I must say it has no place within authentic Christianity. John Chrysostom's three precepts are daily not seasonal demands. To attain them one needs the power of the true Gospel not its superstitious substitute.