today is ash wednesday, marking the beginning of the liturgical season of lent. as happens every year, i CAN’T believe it’s already here! didn’t we just celebrate christmas? wasn’t it JUST 2009? i remember being a kid and listening to my mother talk about how quickly time went and thinking she was crazy. time seems to crawl at what seems like a geological pace when you’re a kid. but, as usual, she was right.
the traditions involved with lent, around the world, are fascinating to me. yesterday, thanks to UK native friends, i got to celebrate ‘pancake tuesday’. yesterday afternoon and evening, facebook was littered with status updates about what things people were ‘giving up’ for lent. this is a tradition i generally participate in. last year i gave up facebook. in the past, i’ve given up things like soda, coffee, candy, tv. this year, i’m giving up my dishwasher. odd, i know.
people have different ideas about the purpose of giving something up. i’m not an expert on the history of lenten traditions, but i know that traditionally people would observe a 40 day fast, finishing with an easter celebration feast. for some the fast would involve giving up meat, for others, any ‘rich’ foods such as butter, eggs, sugar, oils, etc, which is where the traditions of pancake tuesday and fat tuesday came from, in order to rid your house of such foods. for others, i believe yeast is something not used during lent. wikipedia has some interesting information about lent and i’m sure there are more informative websites out there as well. at any rate, it’s an interesting subject, and given that church history is now a topic that fascinates me, as opposed to bores me, i imagine some research is in the near future for me. i do find it interesting that so many people who do not observe lent, from a religious standpoint, do observe lenten fasts.
some people view the purpose of giving up something (or even adding something) in much the same way i view a new years’ resolution, in that it is intended to break or create a habit for personal improvement or increased health, such as smoking or exercising. i view it differently. personally, i try to give up something that has enough significance to me that i will ‘suffer’ a little bit with it. i see the lenten fast as a way to call to mind the suffering of Christ on our behalf, and any time i feel the discomfort of whatever i’ve given up (because of a craving or an inconvenience), i use that to remind myself of how much that ‘suffering’ pales in comparison. that said, i don’t think that anyone can define a ‘correct’ way to observe a lenten fast, only that, if your intention is to observe lent from a religious perspective (and personally, i don’t really understand what there is to observe otherwise – but that’s just me and it’s certainly not for me to determine who should and shouldn’t observe lent), that your focus is on Christ, not on yourself and YOUR personal gain.
there are other traditions of lent that are particularly meaningful to me. i’ve recently become aware of something i had always taken for granted. not all christian denominations are ‘liturgical’. i had no clue about this. what i mean by liturgical, for those who don’t know, is the following of the liturgical calendar of the seasons of church year. it includes seasons like advent, christmas, epiphany, lent, easter, pentecost, etc. there are colors, liturgies, music, etc. that go along with each season as well. obviously, the catholic church and it’s traditions is the main source of much of modern christianity, but a few of the protestant denominations (lutherans, methodists, anglicans) still follow the liturgical calendar. having grown up in the lutheran church, i had no idea that ‘church’ for other christians doesn’t involve these observations and celebrations. of course there’s no biblical requirement which states that in order to be a christian, you MUST follow the liturgical calendar, so i don’t want to give anyone the idea that i think non-liturgical churches are less correct or less christian than those that are. i just have discovered that i really appreciate the rhythm of those seasons and the things that go along with it.
one of the things associated with lent in church, is the absence of the word ‘alleluia’ in music and liturgy. this became particularly meaningful, while i was a student at trinity. every day at 10am, there was a chapel service, and every wednesday, that service included the celebration of the eucharist, or holy communion. the trinity eucharist has some of the most beautiful music i’ve ever experienced (which involve a lot of alleluias), and the absence of that for the season of lent was very significant. even more significant, was the return of this after easter. i can hardly describe the celebratory feeling that accompanied the return of this music and it’s alleluias! that in itself, was a true lenten fast for me. there are also the colors and those things which adorn the church during the seasons which add special significance for me. the cross in the sanctuary of my church will be draped today (for ash wednesday service) in a long purple cloth. it will remain there until good friday, when the purple will be replaced by a black one. everything is very stark and dark that day. and then on easter sunday, the contrast is amazing! the cross is draped in a white cloth all the the paraments are white and easter lilies are everywhere. it’s truly beautiful and really adds to the celebratory feeling and the significance of the progression of the lenten period to the observance of the passion of Christ and the celebration of easter.
well, i’m rambling, as usual. but my hope is that, if you are giving up something for lent, or whatever other way this time of the year is meaningful to you, that you will be blessed in your experience, that your faith is increased, and that Christ and his saving grace will remain your focus.