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The Meaning of Lent

02/23/20 Isaiah 58:6-7

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"

I want to speak about Lent. This coming Wednesday, Lent begins for Western Christians, especially Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, United Church of Christ (Congregationalists), and Presbyterians. Not all Christian denominations celebrate or recognize Lent. Although Lent is all about fasting, self-denial, and giving up things, those that do acknowledge Lent do so at various degrees of participation. For Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, Great Lent begins on Monday. It is known by several names: Clean Monday, Pure Monday, or Green Monday, because it is considered the first day of Spring by some Greek Christians. A very few of the Eastern Catholics, the Maronites, call it Ash Monday. It is a time when you clean your body, your house, your mind and consciousness. The entire first week of Lent is known as “Clean Week” to this subsection of Christianity. Clean Monday is a reminder that we should begin Lent with good intentions and a desire to clean our spiritual house. It is a day of strict fasting for Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, including abstinence not only from meat but from eggs and dairy products as well. If you thought that is different, then there is Tuesday. Historically the day before the standard Ash Wednesday is Shrove Tuesday. Shrove is the past tense of shrive, which refers to a priest hearing a confession, assigning penance, and forgiving the sins of the penitent. Shrove Tuesday is also known as Fat Tuesday, which is celebrated as Mardi Gras, which means Fat Tuesday in French. Historically, Shrove Tuesday was a rather solemn day, but over time a last feast was added to the day. This was like knowing you were going on a diet, so the day before your diet begins, you have four large fat-laden meals, six bowls of ice cream, a half-gallon of mashed potatoes with loads of butter as a snack, and a quart of whole eggnog before you go to bed. In centuries past, the Lenten fast was far more rigorous than it is today, and Christians were required to abstain from all meat and food that came from animals, such as milk, cheese, butter, eggs, and animal fats. So, all of those items needed to be used up before the fast began, and various Christian nations developed their own meat dishes, rich breads, and desserts for one last feast before the austerity of Lent. And thus, the day became known as "Fat Tuesday" for obvious reasons. Of course, given the human animal drives, in some cases, we have turned the joyous festivities of Mardi Gras into a completely hedonistic ritual, sometimes dipping into our absolute lowest urges that need fulfillment. After Fat Tuesday, meat and dairy and eggs would all be preserved in various ways and brought out again for the Easter feast. The Easter feast would last a full eight days, from Easter Sunday through the Sunday after Easter, known today as Divine Mercy Sunday). Among the English-speaking peoples of Great Britain and her colonies, Fat Tuesday is often known as Pancake Day, because they used up their dairy and eggs by making pancakes and similar pastries. Likewise, Fat Tuesday is known as Paczki Day, after the rich, jelly-filled donuts made by Poles in Poland and the United States. The period from the last Sunday before Lent, which is today, through Fat Tuesday is known as Shrovetide. Today, the term Mardi Gras is often applied to the entire period of Shrovetide. In the Mediterranean countries (where the languages are derived Latin), Shrovetide is also known as Carnivale—that is, "goodbye to meat" (from carne, meaning meat, and vale, meaning farewell). Although Lent is not mentioned in the Bible, it is an important Liturgical event in many church calendars. The word Lent, or “Quadragesima,” has an obscure origin, and is probably a corruption of similar pagan terms in ancient Anglo, Saxon, and Germanic languages, all of which referred to spring, new life, and hope. The word Lent is derived from the German word Lenz, which itself came from the root word for 'long' – when the days began to noticeably grow longer. The Lenten season spans 40 days, excluding Sundays, culminating in Easter. During the 3rd Century when Lent originated, there was some controversy over whether Lent was 40 days or 40 hours in duration. In 325, at the Council of Nicaea, 40 days for Lent was made official. The number ‘40’ is Biblically symbolic for the amount of time necessary to prepare for an important spiritual endeavor; it means a sacred period of time. It does not necessarily mean 40 actual days; it is a reference to the time required for the spiritual attainment. The 40 days of Lent parallels the 40 days that Jesus prayed and fasted in the desert and overcame the temptations of the devil prior to beginning his public ministry. Therefore, we are to remain prayerful, penitent, and embrace self-denial during the period of Lent. Other references to 40 days include the rains during the time of Noah lasting 40 days; the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai, which concluded in Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God. There was also the 40 days that Elijah spent walking before he met with God on Mount Horeb, where he received the Torah. The Hebrews wandered the desert for 40 years; Jonah gave Nineveh 40 days to repent. Some believe that the period between the burial of Jesus in the tomb and his resurrection was 40 hours. The number 40 is significant in the Bible, and thus the time frame has been associated with Lent. Lent is intended to prepare us for Easter. It embodies the exalted idea of cleansing and disciplining the mind and body so that we can more easily receive and follow the Christ ideas. One of the ways people have honored Lent over the centuries has been through fasting. Praying and fasting have been long honored means of taking our thoughts away from the outer physical world and focusing on the inner spiritual. Today, if we recognize Lent at all, the idea has evolved into less strenuous means of self-denial, such as giving up drinking or eating meat or bread for 40 days. Some people are drawn to Lent on a grander scale, and are reincorporating prayer and fasting into the Lenten season. Prayer is pretty straight forward. God instructed, “Be still and know that I am God.” OK, we can do that. Perhaps for Lent, if we already don’t have time set aside for prayer, we can set aside five minutes a day and just be still, and sit in the silence with God. We can offer up a quick prayer then sit and be still. If we already have a prayer time, perhaps we could consider giving five more minutes a day. But what about fasting? Praying and fasting are methods of communing with God. Fasting and feasting are opposites but are linked in this process. As we fast in one area, we can fill ourselves in another. For instance, when we give up bread for Lent: we fast from bread and feast on vegetables and other foods. If we literally fast from all foods for days at a time, we feast on liquids. We can also think outside the box of what fasting can be. Rather than giving up food, how about if we give up something else? So how about we restrict our television watching or newspaper reading and spend that time doing something nice for our spouse or in prayer? Fasting is another way of saying “Let go, and let God.” So why not fast from the idea that we can do it all ourselves, that we need no help? Instead, we can feast on the knowledge that God is our constant companion and source of all good. We could fast from the notion that any person or nation can stand in the way of God’s will and good for humankind. We can fast from our fears and doubts and feast on the idea that Christ’s power is surrounding us right now. I am giving you a summary from Phil Ressler book on “Forty Things to Give Up for Lent.” It is a good starting point toward a thoughtful Lent. One last thing about fasting: it is not meant as a public display. In Matthew 6:18, Christ tells his disciples, “Appear not unto men to fast, but unto your Father which is in secret; and the Father, which sees in secret will reward you openly.” We don’t need to share what we are doing with others, as some sort of badge of honor. This is a spiritual communion. We don’t need to ask someone else what they are doing for Lent. Lent is a good time to affirm the power of Christ within, which influences our thoughts, actions, words, and attitudes. Each of us is responsible for improving ourselves and our relationship with God. It is through effort and practice that we learn to deny our selfish interests and attend to the impulses of love for all of God’s children. As Theodore Parker stated: Self-denial is indispensable to a strong character, and the highest kind comes from a religious stock. True fasting, spiritual fasting, is when we withdraw our interest and attention from the worldly, unworthy, and non-productive thoughts that find their way into our minds; when we dedicate all that we are to God instead of the world. It is true prayer, true spiritual feasting, when we take that same mental energy – the same interest and attention - and devote it to the higher-minded thoughts of love, service, harmony, peace, and goodwill toward all. We are a diverse religion, and there is room for all of us. There is no need to judge those who choose differently in their attitudes toward Lent. Should we decide to participate in the Lenten opportunity … great. If not, that is great as well. There is no pressure, there are no requirements; there is nothing we need to do, or can do, to make God love us more. Lent is simply an opportunity to raise our awareness of God’s presence so that we can more adequately prepare our minds and hearts for the fullest expression of God in our lives. Whether we actually observe Lent or not, I encourage us to celebrate what Lent represents: to look forward to the signs of hope and new life. Christ said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” Spring is around the corner. Signs of life are preparing to bud right before our eyes, not only in the world, but within our hearts. As we give more of ourselves to Spirit, to our minds, hearts, and bodies, we are filled in new and wondrous gifts from God.


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