I remember when I was in elementary school, the thing I loved most about Lent was that we had fish fry dinner on Fridays. I had no idea why, but I was happy about that because we never ate at restaurants or ordered takeout in the 1960s. My mother thought eating out was a waste of money, and I have to admit that sometimes I agree with her. I didn’t realize how smart my mother was until I was about 43. Sometimes I wish my kids could jump ahead so that I don’t have to wait so long for them to find this out. Anyway, I didn’t truly consider what Lent was until I was much older, and I realized it went along with Jesus’ 40 days in the desert after his baptism and before he began public ministry. It’s written in the Gospels that he was tempted by Satan, but didn’t falter. Looking at it now, giving something valuable up for 40 days doesn’t seem like much compared with what Jesus went through. (Forty is the number of days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, minus the Sundays, in most Western Christian traditions.)
Whether you “give up” something for Lent or not, it marks a solemn time in the liturgical calendar because it commemorates Jesus’ death and resurrection.
I asked local clergy to share their thoughts about this time of year, and this was my question:
Some people give up Facebook or other social media during Lent. Some give up chocolate or alcohol. Do you think the challenge to “give something up” is more or less difficult these days than it was in the past? Do you know where the roots of this idea come from?
The Rev. Stephen Harding, rector of Grace Episcopal Church:
From the Episcopal understanding, Lent is a season of penitence, awareness of our mortality, and preparation for baptism. These strands weave themselves together as we remember in whose image we are made, whom we serve, and the end-point of Jesus’ life on earth with His death on the Cross. The story doesn’t end there, but with the mystery and miracle of his Resurrection in Easter. For the early Christians (circa 96 C.E.), the night before Easter, linked to the night Jesus rose from the tomb, was when baptisms took place. Baptism was the result of a three-year-long catechumenate, or preparation, and took place in a place separate from the already baptized congregation.
It makes sense to me that the notion of “giving something up for Lent” would have its origin in this season of preparation for baptism — in order to remove any barrier that might separate the individual from God, and that would keep the individual from fully experiencing God’s grace.
I view Lent as more of an interior journey, one that seeks to discover what my own barriers may be — overworking, trying to do too much, not being with my family as often as I could be; being distracted, not making time for silence, reflection, or time to be with God.
With all the distractions that the news cycles and social media provide, as well as the events in one’s life, I think that opportunities to be still abound. I think that there is so much that can contribute to barriers between individuals (of any belief) and the Divine that it is relatively easy to identify something that separates us from coming to terms with who we really are and something that keeps us separated from the Divine. The hard part is doing the work to dismantle the barrier and find the faith (and courage) to face what is on the other side.
Bruce Nevin, member of the Martha’s Vineyard Quaker community:
The season of Lent calls for sacrifice, which like any sacrament is an outward and visible manifestation of an inward and spiritual reality.
Lent officially is in imitation of the story of Jesus’ fasting 40 days in the wilderness, a classic vision quest. In Hebrew, 40 is the number of the letter Mem. The name of that letter is a word, mem, that means water, so that quest is understood as a spiritual baptism. Water is everywhere emblematical of mind, so this 40 further betokens profound meditation, and on the way to an inward stillness all the devils of the world are disclosed to light. Thoughts, impulses, memories, imaginings, emotions, all are sacrificed, all the furniture and clothing of life, and in this seeming preparation for actual death is found life itself.
In every apparent contradiction between inward spiritual reality and outward expressions of that reality is the opportunity to choose which to sacrifice. What did you think needed love? Where is God not?
The word Lent, from Lenten, is cognate with “lengthen,” and stems from the lengthening of days in spring and the return of light which is celebrated at Passover and Easter and countless other festivals always and everywhere. The word Easter has the same origin as “east,” whence comes the morning light. The church season of Lent is no more than an outward reminder of the inward and spiritual reality of Lent and light in every day.
The Rev. Sharon Eckhardt, interim pastor, the Federated Church:
Nearly every Lent, someone asks me about the practice of “giving up” something for Lent.
My response is that it is not a requirement, but that such practices can be good Lenten disciplines. They help us to get rid of the many distractions of our lives, and focus, or re-focus, on our faith and our lives.
But should we do so, it should be to center our minds and hearts on the self-GIVING life of Jesus; not to serve our own interests. Giving up chocolate is not to be a kick-start to our latest diet!
The biblical discipline (which begins in Jewish tradition) of prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor can be powerful helps as we move toward God’s call to repentance, literally meaning, “to turn around and go the other way.”
Perhaps better than “giving things up” would be DOING something we don’t always do.
Make a daily practice during Lent of reading the Bible or Lenten meditations. Collect one can of food each day for the food pantry … 40 cans could help the hungry a lot! Sign up to volunteer in the many wonderful organizations that need your help. Pay attention to your life of prayer.
The Rev. Susan Waldrop, interfaith minister at large:
The idea of giving something up for Lent is an old tradition. It is theologically the same part of the thinking that supports fasting, and the idea that when we “mortify the flesh,” more of the Spirit will have room in our lives. Jesus fasted and gave up food altogether while he was in the dessert, theologians will point out; why can’t we?
And the question is a good one. We are so attached to our routines of food and work — even patterns of thought — it is hard to shake free of old habits.
When we consciously go without something, the hope is that we have more time to let God in.
But I have found that sometimes even the habit of giving up something just becomes a rote behavior we do because we feel we must. Then we can even become resentful, and so growing in God or letting in more of the breath of life in the Spirit becomes harder, not easier.
I have found it easier to think about what habits of thinking or behaving are becoming so rooted in me that I have lost my freedom — my ability to choose — or am about to lose it! Then I consciously try to figure out how that pattern got started, and figure out the triggers that bring it on. Possible questions I might ask are, “Who hurt me so badly that I bark out in uncontrollable anger sometimes? How can God help me heal? Do I need to forgive someone, even myself? What am I trying to soothe if I drink or eat too much?”
This kind of approach, where I am consciously thinking and praying about patterns I want to change, and making a plan to figure out how I came to that thinking or behavior, makes me invested in the process of giving up that pattern. Then I am no longer resentful. The point of Lent is changing behavior and coming closer to God. If giving up a food item helps you focus on that, great. But what you are called to give up should be related to changing a negative pattern. Some people don’t give up something; they add a volunteer service because they want to grow in compassion. It’s all good.
And if I am praying about what to change and how to change it, and praying for healing and insight, then I am grateful, because I see the connection between repentance and change. My heart feels better and there is a smile on my lips. God is good!
The Rev. Chip Seadale, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church:
The season of Lent (40 days plus Sundays during that time) is a tradition begun by early Christians who desired to prepare for the passion (suffering and death), and resurrection, of Christ — the single most important event in the life of the church. The custom of preparation focuses on penitence — considering our shortcomings and wrongdoings — and fasting — finding ways to take a break from the things we do that keep us from being close to God and each other. In some faith traditions, that might mean eating fish on Fridays, and there’s always the “giving up the cursing and chocolate” for Lent, but in more recent years, I think many traditions are encouraging adding things, not necessarily giving things up, to one’s life that add life. Since I’m in the God “business,” I like to suggest things that center us and bring us peace — which attending church can do — or maybe taking only 10 minutes a morning and reading a Lenten devotional published for just that purpose. Even a short walk each day can remind us of the greatness and love of God!
I think the whole idea of Lent comes from “coming clean” to ourselves, so that we can be honest enough to allow ourselves to grow, in a way God hopes for us — and that remembering, as we do on Ash Wednesday each year, that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return”; that although we are limited as mortals, God is not limited in any sense of the word. By deepening our relationship with God, we become linked to, and heirs of, the very thing that Christ experienced at his death: resurrection to a new life in God’s universe. In fact, all of Christianity is based on the notion that we experience life, and death, and life and death, over and over again, and life in some way awaits us even after we leave life in this world. For God’s world indeed, is timeless. Eternal. And there is a way we can all participate in it, and learn better to love our God and each other and enjoy eternal life, even in the here and now.
April’s Neighborhood Convention gathering is on Tuesday, April 2, at 11 am at Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven. Margaret Penicaud will talk about the Martha’s Vineyard Haiti Fish Farm Project. Everyone is welcome to come and to bring a sack lunch; drinks are provided by the host.
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