For those of us who grew up on the East Coast or in large cities like Chicago or Los Angeles, we don’t need a sleepy groundhog to tell us whether or not spring will soon be here. If you know how to read the signs, there is no shortage of hints: besides spring-training reports from baseball teams in Florida and Arizona, there are supermarket signs proclaiming “Seafood for Lent.”
The signs refer to the Christian practice of fasting and/or abstaining from certain foods in the approximately six weeks preceding Holy Week. While most of us associate Lent with Catholicism, the observance is not limited to Catholics: Anglicans and Lutherans observe Lent at the same time as Catholics, and while the Orthodox Great Lent begins and ends on different days, there is a significant overlap.
Regardless of the details, the message is the same: as worshippers are told on Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”
If that sounds gloomy to you, you’re probably missing the point. About a lot of things.
While the word “Lent” — which comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “lengten,” meaning “spring” — does not appear in Scripture, the observance of Lent goes back a long way in Christian history. In 339 A.D., the bishop of Alexandria (and theologian extraordinaire) Athanasius described a fast that began 40 days prior to Holy Week as being the custom throughout the Christian world. The 40 days duration was derived from the period of time Jesus fasted in the wilderness at the start of His public ministry.
For new Christians, these 40 days served as preparation for their baptism at Easter, figuratively and literally the time during which they passed from darkness to light, from death to life. For the already-baptized, it was a time of self-examination and recommitment.
All this talk of self-examination and recommitment sounds “oppressive” and “gloomy” to contemporary minds, including those belonging to Christians. For most moderns “the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
Religion is expected to further this goal. What sociologist Christian Smith dubbed “moralistic therapeutic deism” has no room for the kind of self-examination and sacrifice that is at the heart of Lenten observance. The God of “moralistic therapeutic deism” demands nothing more than that people be nice and fair to one another. And if they’re not, well, no big deal.
Lent tells a very different story about a very different kind of God who saved very different kinds of people. These people didn’t need to feel good about themselves — they needed to be made good. To that end, God sent His only Son, born of a woman, to live the life we were intended to live but couldn’t.
During Lent, Christians, as a friend of mine once put it, “rehearse — in the most basic meaning of that word — the story of our salvation, starting with the Fall and culminating in Good Friday.” And in this rehearsal, “a consistent picture of God emerges: the God who takes the initiative in reconciling us to Himself.”
Lent is only “gloomy” if you think that being reconciled to God is “gloomy.” It’s only “gloomy” if you think that we are so wonderful that reconciliation didn’t cost God all that much.
If you know better, than perhaps it’s time to pass the fish. And by the way, there are a number of other things you can do to observe Lent. Please come to BreakPoint.org, click on this commentary, and look under "Further Reading and Information."