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    purple crocuses

    Why Do We Celebrate Lent?

    The point of Lent is that it has an end.

    By Melanie McDonagh

    March 5, 2022
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    Until a remarkably short time ago, the cycle of the year for almost all of Britain followed the Christian calendar. The great feasts of Christmas and Easter framed the year and around them other holy days followed. In this old ordering of the year, Christmas went on for twelve days, from Christmas Eve to the Epiphany on January 6. Once Christmas was established it was possible to fix the date of Christ’s conception nine months previous, so the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25. For centuries in medieval and early modern England, this is when the year officially began. And prior to Christmas there is Advent, a month of preparation for the coming of Christ. That’s when the liturgical year begins, with the cycle of scripture readings leading up to Christmas.

    Then there is Easter, which is tied to the date of the Jewish Passover, since Christ’s passion happens at the Passover. In the fourth century this was established at the Council of Nicaea as the Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox. It’s a source of perpetual irritation to tidy-minded people that an important holiday is linked to the phases of the moon and not nailed down to a particular date like Christmas. Indeed, in the Easter Act of 1928, the British Parliament tried to legislate a fixed date for Easter – this hubristic effort to pin down a floating feast was never put into practice.

    And once a formula for determining the date of Easter was established, other elements of the calendar followed. Easter is preceded by the forty days of Lent, based on Christ’s time in the desert, a time of fasting, abstinence, and preparation for observing the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ.

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    Photograph by Yoksel Zok

    Right now, this cycle of the year, which has lasted for centuries, is being displaced by different preoccupations. Christmas is obviously still celebrated, but it is celebrated too early and ends much too quickly. The festive season, which is meant to start on Christmas Eve, starts in November and ends right in the middle of the twelve days of Christmas, when people begin their New Year’s resolutions with an ambition to lose weight. So they start their dispiriting diet and fitness regimes before the three kings even arrive with their gifts for the Christ Child on January 6.

    It’s wrong, all wrong. The proper time for giving things up is not January; it’s Lent. That’s when we should be going in for fasting and abstinence; that’s when we should be having the equivalent of “Dry January.”

    You may have realized that Lent is actually longer than forty days; in fact, Sundays are always holy days, and don’t require fasting even in Lent, thus the number of fasting days is still forty in the season.

    As well as a religious rationale for Lent as a season for abstinence after the example of Christ, there’s a powerful natural sense to it here in Britain. It’s spring, a time of new beginnings, when the weather is starting to warm and sowing is underway, yet it’s also a time when food and fuel were once in short supply, after people had used up their reserves in the cold months. As Ronald Hutton observes in his account of the cycle of the British ritual year, The Stations of the Sun, “The time was admirably suited to a period of self-denial … culminating in the rejoicing at the most important of all Christian festivals. It took up the season in which most of the sowing and ploughing was carried out in agrarian areas, and relaxation and celebration was hardly appropriate.”

    Prior to the Reformation, the fasting and abstinence of Lent was very real. At the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory decreed that Christians should abstain from meat, milk, cheese, butter, and eggs. But fish was eaten freely. That kind of rigor still characterizes Eastern Orthodox fast periods; indeed, according to some estimates, Orthodox Christians spend nearly a third of the year as vegans or pescetarians.

    For the rest of us, Lent usually means giving up things of our choice, such as chocolate or sugar in our tea; it’s an altogether more easy-going affair than it once was. But this is the right time for privation. It’s spiritually apt, a way of replicating in a small way Christ’s time in the desert. And obviously following the example of Christ, who fasted as well as feasted, is fundamental to the Christian life. It’s also apt for the season. This is a time when fasting is easier than in the cold of January. Nature is on your side. There are plants coming up that make it easier to give up meat. At least in Britain, the air and the earth are warmer; you don’t need to eat as much as in winter to keep going.

    In other words, Lent is the right time to go vegan or to give up alcohol – not during the bleakest month of the year, as the secular calendar has it. In the Northern Hemisphere, certainly in Western Europe, the effect of abstinence in January is dire; it makes a cold and dispiriting month even more bleak. Nature is telling you to have a drink, eat starchy carbs and warming casseroles, and let abstinence go hang. Instead the retail sector offers low-calorie everything and unforgiving fitness clothing for the “New Year, New You” regime.

    Lent is another matter. There are traditions to sustain us for the weeks of abstinence. Prior to Ash Wednesday, there’s Pancake Day or Fat Tuesday, when, historically, people would use up their stock of milk and eggs to make pancakes. The previous day was Collop Monday – unfamiliar now, but a time for using up meat, to be fried in collops, or slices, in the pan. Fat Tuesday was once a very big deal, a time for a last bout of celebration before the abstinence started; it was in early modern times marked with plays and games. Elsewhere, Lent was, and still is, preceded by carnival – a festivity where the clue is in the name: carne vale, or farewell to meat.

    After that came Ash Wednesday, where, in Catholic churches, the priest put a cross of ashes on your forehead with the traditional, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” And that was the start of the season of giving things up. When I was small, Lent meant giving up chocolate. Last year, I tried to go medieval and give up meat and dairy (apart from Sundays, which I was very keen on exempting from the fast). I ended up eating far more starchy carbs than normal – bread, rice, and pasta being all appropriate – and ended up putting on weight. I spent a fortune on coconut yogurt and, yes, I know I should have been saving money and giving it to the poor. In medieval and early modern times, fish would have been cheap, and a very good meat substitute.

    At the other end of Lent is, of course, Easter, when the deprivation comes to an end, and we can fall on the Easter feast with all the more appetite. Nowadays, Easter eggs mean chocolate (in fact, nowadays most holidays mean chocolate) but formerly the return to egg-eating was marked with egg-rolling on Easter Sunday, and the distribution of colored eggs as presents. Again, it’s Orthodox Christians who keep up that tradition best; decorated eggs in Orthodox cultures like Ukraine are quite beautiful. And of course, the symbolism of eggs at Easter is obvious: chicks emerging from eggs are to remind us of Christ emerging from the darkness of the tomb.

    The point of Lent is that it has an end. It precedes and prepares for the celebration. It’s the cycle of fasting and feasting which gives the Christian year its dynamism. The feasting is meant to be savored in light of the abstinence that went before – not, as in “Veganuary”, a self-imposed fast making up for Christmas gluttony. Nowadays, much secular culture is non-stop feasting, and any “fasts” come after-the-fact. It’s the wrong way round.

    So, let’s observe Lent. It’s still a season that’s relatively known; even non-Christians sometimes give things up for Lent. There are the customs of history and the traditions of Christianity to help us through. And of course, the object of fasting, of giving things up, is spiritual. It makes us realize the extent to which we have been the slaves of our appetites and given way to them at every turn. It’s a small attempt to replicate the fasting of Christ, whom we are meant to be imitating. It can remind us what life is like for those who can’t afford to eat what they want, when they want. And it prepares us for Easter. That’s the great thing about Lent: the prospect of Easter at the end of it, the feast of the resurrection, the glorious high point of the Christian year. The feast that follows the fast is more splendid because of the privations that went before it. That’s the point of Lent.

    Contributed By

    Melanie McDonagh is an Irish journalist working in London. She is a leader writer for the Evening Standard and a regular contributor to the Tablet, the Spectator, and UnHerd.

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