The Season of Lent

When I came up with the 100 for 100 programme back in 2007, it was somewhere around the end of September. While things started out reasonably well in the first three decades, what I didn’t count on was the havoc that the imminent festive season was about to play on my noble intentions. With Dussehra in mid-October, Diwali soon after and a trip to Goa in between, I didn’t have to wait for Christmas to call it all off. Attempts to revive things once or twice in the middle also turned out to be non-starters.

This time around, though, the timing is much more strategically sound, and the chances of seeing it through till the end on May 25 far, far better. All because of Lent.

What is Lent?

Lent is the period of 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter eve (not counting the six intervening Sundays) stipulated by the Catholic Church (and other Christian denominations) in commemoration of the fasting for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert by Jesus before he commenced his public ministry. This year, 2010, Ash Wednesday fell on February 17th and Easter will be on April 4th. The word Lent is derived from Anglo-Saxon words (lencten and lenctintid) denoting the spring season or the month of March, or possibly a translation of a Latin term meaning forty days or the fortieth day.

The number 40 seems to have some specific religious significance, as there are many references to it in the Bible. For instance, in the Old Testament, the Book of Exodus tells us that when Moses received the Ten Commandments for the second time from God (Moses has smashed the two stone tablets earlier in anger when he saw the evil of his people after coming down the mountain) Moses remained on Mount Sinai with the Lord for “forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water.”  During the great flood at the time of Noah, it rained for forty days and forty nights. The presentation of Jesus at the temple happened forty days after his birth. There are many more such references to the number 40 in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament of the Bible. In Hinduism, one reference I could immediately locate was the famous “Hanuman Chalisa” written by Tulsidas, consisting of 40 verses; I’m sure there must be more forties there too.

In the early days of the Church, Lent was a much more stringent period, with rigid stipulations of fasting and penance and sacrifice and all sorts of other crazy stuff. It’s much more sensible now. The focus has shifted from rigorous fasting and harsh penance, to increased prayer, reflection and alms-giving, with just a bit of self-denial thrown in for good measure too.

Voluntary Sacrifice

The faithful are asked to voluntarily “give up something one likes” (presumably something that’s considered to be an avoidable over-indulgence). While the self-discipline imposed by giving something up during Lent is definitely desirable, it has no enduring value in itself if one anyway plans to get back to a life of gluttony or debauchery or whatever post-Easter.

So the emphasis is on using the time thus saved (or making time for) reading the scriptures and reflecting on them, praying and attending religious services, repenting for earlier wrong-doing, serving those in need, and generally attempting to become a better person, all in preparation for Easter. Also, the money saved by avoiding the over-indulgence could be channelled to some worthy charity.

Incidentally, it’s a legitimately accepted practice nowadays that the six Sundays of Lent need not be included in the forty-day period and one can indulge on those days in whatever one has given up for the duration; some also include March 19 and March 25 (the feasts of St Joseph and the Annunciation) as being exempt. But of course that defeats the whole purpose and goes against the spirit of why one is giving up anything at all in the first place.

For me personally, the fact that I am entirely off booze and eating mostly vegetarian food (fish and eggs are permitted) during Lent, makes the targets of 100 for 100 slightly easier to achieve, at least for the first four or five Decades. That’s a bonus. But far more importantly, I am in fact using some of the time that would have been spent in partying to instead read the scriptures and linked commentaries on them – hopefully I will be able to share some of the insights gained, during the next few weeks. As for charity, I have already added to the kitty of pledges already graciously made by three others [See comments for the post Measured for Success].

- Val Souza

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