I came to the Xian Calendar fairly late. I was raised in a church that thought anything liturgical smacked of Roman Catholicism and since everyone knew that Roman Catholics were going to hell, we had nothing to do with liturgy. As a result, I had just about zero familiarity with Xian liturgies until I was 40. (By the way, – just to be clear – I no longer believe Roman Catholics are going to hell. Unless they are bankers. And that has nothing to do with being Catholic. But I digress.)
Now that I attend an Episcopalian Church, I get to experience the liturgy every week, and cycle through the Xian calendar every year. For those of you who don’t know about the Xian Calenday, permit me another brief digression.
The start of the Xian year is the season of Advent, and the first day of Advent is the Sunday 4 Sundays before Christmas, (or Xmas as I prefer.) Advent lasts 4 weeks and ends on Xmas Eve. Then the Xmas season lasts 12 days, (thus the 12 days of Xmas), followed by Epiphany. We finished Epiphany yesterday, and today is the first day of Lent. Lent lasts 40 days and ends on Easter week. Easter week culminates in Easter Sunday, which is the high point of the Xian year. The Easter season lasts 50 days and ends on Pentecost Sunday, from which point we go into the “ordinary” season which lasts the rest of the year. Each season has a particular purpose:
- Advent prepares us for the coming of the Lord.
- Christmas is the celebration of His coming
- Epiphany celebrates Him being revealed to the world
- Lent — well, I’ll talk about that in a moment.
- Easter week celebrates Christ’s “passion”, (or sufferings and death)
- Easter Sunday celebrates His resurrection
- Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit being given to the church
Traditionally, Lent is a season of fasting, so Xians are encouraged to fast from something for the entire 40-day period. Hard-core ascetics might fast from eating for the entire 40 days. (Yes, it is possible. I have a friend who has fasted 40 days on 3 separate occasions. No, I don’t plan to do so.)
Anyhoo, here we are on the first day of Lent, and I was pondering some of the things I heard the kids talk about last night. They were saying they might celebrate Lent by abstaining from various foods, or various bad attitudes or wrong behaviors, and that got me to asking “why” questions – something I tend to do a lot:
Why do we fast during Lent?
The typical religious answer to the question “why do we fast” generally has something to do with proving something to God. Frankly, that kind of answer makes me want to be a Buddhist. If God needs me to prove something to Him, then He is not the kind of God I would bother to worship. The other typical answer is that it is a time to focus on self-improvement. I think that is closer to the truth, but not for the obvious reasons. The point of fasting during Lent is not to improve ourselves, but to prove to ourselves that we are incapable of improving ourselves.
I would suspect that when Lent first started, people were instructed to abstain from some behavior that was particularly ugly, perhaps anger or lust or gluttony or one of the other Seven Deadly Sins. Of course, anyone who truly struggled with such behaviors would have found it nigh-on impossible to completely avoid those things for 40 consecutive days. And that was the point – to prove to themselves how incapable they were of improving themselves.
We humans tend to think more highly of ourselves and less highly of God than we ought.
We tend to think that our fecal matter has a delightful aroma, that our sins are mere peccadilloes, barely more than a slight smudge on the otherwise-flawless surface of our sparkly, shiny selves. We tend to think that God – when we think of Him at all – is a slightly dodgy old man who is easily duped and has a lot of crazy, impractical ideas. He needs to be humored, but not taken seriously.
But every year, Lent gives us the chance to make an honest attempt to abstain from our own truly horrendous behaviors, and fail – miserably. And in that trying and failing, we have a chance to see ourselves for what we are: miserable, poor, naked, blind and wretched. It was for just such folk that the Son of God came. As Jesus Himself said, “the healthy have no need of a physician.”
Lent – despair over the sorry state of our own souls – prepares us for Easter.
May this season of Lent grant us the gift of honest self-assessment and prepare our hearts to receive with joy and gratitude the unspeakably wonderful gift of the Risen Christ.