Today marks the first day of Lent, and I have decided to observe it by giving up soccer. Haha, no, I’m just kidding. That’s crazy talk. But still, today marks the first day of Lent for many Christians around the world. While I myself do not observe the 40-Day Lenten period, I am fascinated by the idea of it, and the reasons for which some people choose to observe.
The first time I ever heard of Lent was in high school, when a Catholic acquaintance of mine was showing off the ashes smudged on her head on Ash Wednesday. I, an evangelical Christian at the time, stared in wonder, having never heard of such a practice. Even more amazing, the girl explained that, during Lent, or the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday, her family abstained from eating meat. It was then that I decided I never wanted to be Catholic.
Then, a few years ago, I made an acquaintance who was an Eastern Orthodox Christian. She happily explained her faith traditions to me, which make the Catholic Church’s rules pale by comparison. During the period of Lent (in this case, the 40 days leading up to Orthodox Easter Sunday), Orthodox Christians observe a very strict fast. They choose to abstain from eating any animal products, meat or dairy. They also abstain from eating oils or fats, and drinking wine. Basically, their meals during this period are very simple dishes, such as lentils, vegetable soup, and bread.
“But why would you want to forbid yourself from eating such things for so long?” I asked my acquaintance. To me, it seemed unreasonably strict, like a self-inflicted form of punishment.
“When you live your life constantly treating and indulging yourself,” my acquaintance explained, “then it becomes less pleasurable. But imagine choosing to abstain for a while from the things which bring you great pleasure. When you finally end the fast and indulge, then the reward is far greater.”
It made so much sense then. Of course, as she also explained, there are other reasons for fasting during Lent, such as being more spiritually awake and in tune with God, dedicating the body and spirit to prayer and thanksgiving, and helping the poor. Some people see it as a type of spiritual self-discipline, which helps them to be less focused on fulfilling the desires of the self and turning their focus outward, toward God and others.
And the thing is, I really like that idea. Religious or not, it seems such a positive thing to observe a period of being spiritually awake, and of denying the self and focusing on God, or the poor, or on being a better human being. On living as simply and humbly as possible, in order to realize, in the end, how blessed one truly is.
Now, I don’t think that I could spend an entire 40 days eating as strict a diet as an Orthodox Christian. And the Catholic version of fasting does not seem like a fast to me at all, since I already don’t eat much meat. However, many evangelical Christians, though it is not required by doctrine, choose to observe another form of the Great Fast. Some people give up money by giving to charities. Others give up their time by volunteering to help the poor. Still others give up some luxury that is important to them, such as chocolate, television, or caffeinated drinks. If I choose to participate in Lent, then perhaps I would consider this route. As long as I don’t have to give up soccer. Or tea. Or my iPad… Okay fine, I would probably suck at observing Lent.