It’s finally here! The best time of the year. First, people gorge themselves on all kinds of treats, then they get black ashes rubbed onto their foreheads, then they eat fish on Fridays, and then it’s Easter. That’s right. It’s Lent. Again.
To me, Lent has always been another meaningless church season that I was forced to observe since I was a child. In my family’s Lutheran church, it started with Ash Wednesday, where we would go and get nice and smudged, although fortunately for me, the service was in the evening, and I got to go home and wash it off right after. This practice started to bother me more as a teenager, when I was becoming more of a skeptic, although I never really found the ashy forehead look very attractive to begin with. I once got in a squabble with my mom because I tried to cover my ash-marked forehead with my hair, and she wanted me to show it off instead.
Lent is one of those times of year that I never really think about until other people remind me. Even back in high school on Lenten Wednesday evenings, I would shower, get in my PJs, and get to studying only to see my mom coming down the stairs asking if I was ready for church. Living on my own, this year I didn’t realize it was Lent until my new coworkers started asking each other what they would give up for Lent, whether or not they participated in Ash Wednesday, and where they could find a good fish fry on Friday. Overhearing their conversations, all of these odd memories and customs of Lent came flooding back to me.
I’ve always been aware of Mardi Gras and of Lent, but for some reason, the fact that they were connected never really stuck with me. Now I know that Mardi Gras is Fat Tuesday, which is the celebration most famous for New Orleans parades and feasts before people somberly observe Lent by giving up something they love and fasting (although these are often one and the same, for those of us who love food).
I brushed up on my knowledge of Lent for this post on Wikipedia, so this is by no means a history lesson, but I knew of a lot of Lenten traditions that seemed unrelated to me, like the fasting, the giving things up, and the Mardi Gras celebrations. It turns out, of course, that they’re all interconnected.
According to Wikipedia, Mardi Gras may have pagan roots tied to those of the Christmas season. More recently, however, Mardi Gras has become a part of the church calendar, occurring during Epiphany, which begins after the Christmas season (January 6th) and ends six weeks before Easter (so it can be between February 4th and March 10th). The final Mardi Gras celebration is significant because it’s many Christians’ last chance to enjoy whatever it is they’re giving up until Easter.
I’ve never really understood the Lenten tradition of giving something up. My church never required it, and I always thought, “It’s just not something that we Lutherans do” (similarly to believing in evolution, or questioning our beliefs), but it turns out that a lot of Lutherans do give things up because they feel personally convicted to. Actually, a lot of people do, even if they’re not that religious, and they don’t completely know why. I certainly don’t.
Thanks again to Wikipedia, I learned more about why people give up things for Lent, and fast, which these days seems to just mean eating fish and no other meat on Fridays. It’s meant to prepare the believer for Easter and force them to be without something they enjoy, which should mimic how Jesus felt when wandering in the desert and fasting for forty days before being executed in the Gospels. Most Christians I know are really excited and joyful on Easter, and they say it’s because “He is risen!” but it may be more so because they can once again experience the sweet flavors of chocolate, coffee, soda, or wine, for the first time in weeks.
I’m not morally opposed to the idea of giving things up for Lent. It reminds me of having a New Year’s Resolution, or the newer “media fast,” where people will sometimes challenge themselves to try to live without social media for various reasons. I don’t have any problem with doing things like this, although I find it questionable when it’s for no reason but to deprive yourself of something just because you enjoy it. If you are normally responsible about how much coffee, chocolate, or alcohol you consume, then I don’t think it does you any good to give it up for Lent. You only get so long on this Earth, and you might as well do it without bringing more unnecessary suffering to yourself than you already experience otherwise.
I think that making resolutions is good if you really want to change something about yourself. Maybe you normally have too much coffee, chocolate, alcohol, or social media, and you want to cut back. That would certainly be healthy, but if it’s really a problem, you shouldn’t only do it for New Year’s or Lent. You can make a change on any day when you decide that you want to cut a bad habit, and it’s probably smarter to gradually cut back on things like coffee rather than just give it up cold turkey for forty days.