by Peter Klapes
This year, for Catholics and many Protestant sects, Lent began on February 10- Ash Wednesday. Great Lent begins on Monday, March 14 for Orthodox Christians. Lent, the season of approximately forty days preceding Easter, is a time of prayerl, atoning, and fasting in preparation for Resurrection Sunday.
Lasting forty days in commemoration of Jesus’s desert fast, during which the Son of God was tempted unsuccessfully by the Devil, the Greek and Latin word for Lent—“Σαρακοστή” and “quadragesima,” respectively, refers to this tradition. In many other languages—namely German, Norwegian, Polish, and, Czech—Lent’s name reflects primarily its fasting practice. In English, the word Lent comes from the Old English “Lenten,” meaning “spring.” Although in the Eastern rite, the Lenten period includes the Sundays leading up to Easter, the Catholic tradition calls for the exclusion of Sundays, for every Sunday is considered a “little Easter.”
Mardi Gras, the French for “Fat Tuesday,” is celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday and is marked by a great feast and party in preparation for the solemn period of fasting the succeeds. In the Orthodox tradition, the two weeks prior to Great Lent are known as the Meatfare and the Cheesefare Week. Meatfare Sunday is the last day that the consumption of meat is permitted before Easter, and the following week, Cheesefare Week, culminates in Cheesefare Sunday, the last day upon which dairy may be consumed before Easter. In many ways, the weaning of meat and dairy had a practical purpose in early Christendom, affording believers the chance to weed their cupboards, if you will.
In the Catholic tradition, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, following the Judeo-Christian understanding of ashes as emblematic of mortality, with the belief that when we die, our bodies decompose and we become ash. Ashes are also symbolic of repentance, a main aspect of the Lenten period, in a tradition of early Christendom where repenting folks would put ashes on their head to remind them that sin is uncomfortable.
All in all, Lent is a period of retreat- a time of inward reflection, repentance, and fasting. In the Catholic tradition, it has grown customary to “give up” a certain food item or pleasure: chocolate, coffee, television, or alcohol. Many faithful Orthodox fast abstaining from “heavy” products—dairy, meat, and oils. Lent also provides a period to remember deceased friends and relatives, or to volunteer time for those in need. But finally, we must remember that what matters most during lent is not what goes in your mouth (or, for that matter, doesn’t go in your mouth), but rather, what comes out of your mouth. Our actions in this world, and our relations with our fellow citizens matter most, and the Lenten period provides the great chance to cultivate our love for God’s people and His world, so that its beauty may be harvested past Easter, and throughout the year.