Lent, the 40-day period in the Christian liturgical year marked by penitence and self-denial, starts Wednesday.
My daughter, Eva, will be observing Lent by giving up Tic Tacs. No small commitment, believe me, in spite of their diminutive size. She goes through countless numbers of the green variety daily. Personally, I think this is a result of watching the Juno film once too often. Which, I admit, is easy to do – it’s a great film. (One could fill a small book of quotable quotes from this film’s sparkling script. A memorable one is when 16-year-old Juno ‘fesses up to her parents about being pregnant, and explains her hope of having the baby adopted. Her almost-ever-positive step-mom, Bren, comments: “Someone else is gonna find a precious blessing from Jesus in this garbage dump of a situation.” Something to bear in mind when things don’t go to plan.)
Anyway, back to Lent. For being an Anglican priest I have remarkably little feel for it. I can’t quite get a handle on it. I grew up in a North American Protestant Big-E Evangelical family and as far as I can remember we didn’t even know Lent existed. Sure, we knew the local Roman Catholics had a yearly bash and after that had to be decent and sober again for a long while. I grew up in Brazil; how could I not know about Carnival? But I didn’t quite understand how it connected with being a Christian. Of course, we didn’t think much of Catholic spirituality to begin with.
Marking the forty days* between Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and Easter as “penitential” flies in the face of everything I learned as a child about sin and redemption, namely that Jesus has already comprehensibly dealt with all our sin, so there is no need for further acts of penitence. It’s pointless. Confess your sins to God, ask forgiveness, Bob’s your uncle. Those poor souls I saw crossing the Plaza de la Constitución in Mexico City on their bloodied knees, way back in 1972, where misguided. Their suffering won’t make one iota of difference on the Day of Reckoning; Jesus has already done it, once and for all, some two millennia ago.
The first time I can remember observing Lent was one of the years I kept Ramadan, probably 1992. Renata and I wanted to know what our Muslim neighbors went through with Ramadan, so we joined them for the whole of the fast; Lent happened to be about the same period so it became a handy way to explain that “yes, Christians fast too, and our period of abstinence happens to coincide with yours this year”. I suppose it’s telling of my approach to Lent that it took curiosity about a Muslim tradition to get me to pay any attention to it. A year later we joined the Anglican church and my education in all things liturgical began in earnest.
The Church of England’s website says this about Lent: “For Christians today it’s a time to remember our faults, a time of penitence and reconciliation…” In other words, a time to dwell on our frailties and failures, and making the effort to put things right. Now, I’m all for self-reflection and humility. But seven weeks? I have my problems, yes, but I’m the kind of person who puts my dirty clothes in the laundry basket right away rather than waiting to collect them off the floor only when I’ve run out of things to wear.
So Lent isn’t as special for me as it apparently is for some. I haven’t been Anglican that long yet. I go along as best I can: a Jew to the Jew, Greek to the Greek type situation. Or “When in Rome…” if you prefer. I’ve given up chocolate, I’ve given up alcohol, and one year I even gave up TV. And I have to admit: it succeeds handsomely in making me more irritable, which I suppose is a backhanded way of recognizing my lack of perfection. But with the Dutch being as honest and straightforward as they are I get a daily helping of that anyway, Lent or no Lent.
A few days ago I woke up with a smashing headache, which I quickly identified as the result of not having had enough caffeine the day before. I had only had two small mugs of coffee at breakfast, and no more the rest of the day. This, after weeks of having up to 5 or 6 cups of coffee every day. A painful reminder of my dependence on a daily dose of an unnecessary stimulative substance. Aha! The perfect target for Lenten abstinence, an act of denial sure to keep me edgy! So, I’ll be giving up coffee for Lent.
Just warning you.
*The Sundays are exempted by virtue of being the Lord’s Day, thus making 40 days from Ash Wednesday through the Saturday before Easter. So on Sundays, go ahead and eat chocolate, drink that wine, and freshen your breath with a tic tac™.