Well, we’re officially halfway through Lent. How are you doing with your Lenten sacrifices? Have they gone wayward much like New Year’s Resolutions do, or are you still giving up and giving more?
Why do we give up things during Lent?
Giving up things we like is said to help us realize that the pleasures of this life are not what we live for. We are traditionally encouraged to abstain from contraptions and trappings that take our attention away from God and anything that distances us from God.
Most followers also abstain from meat on all Fridays during Lent and the reasons why vary. Some say it’s a way of following the apostles in saying no to our wants in order to say yes to Jesus. Abstinence from meat also reminds us that Christ offered his own flesh and blood for us on the cross. And yet another tradition holds that years ago only the very wealthy could afford meat and fish was a poor man’s meal. By choosing fish over meat during Lent, we are reminded of that Jesus lived a very simple life and preached humility.
The purpose of fasting is also to open up space inside of us to make room for the Holy Spirit to work. Spiritual writers use the analogy of a stringed instrument in that unless the body of a cello is empty, it cannot produce beautiful music.
In the middle ages, meat, eggs, and milk were forbidden during Lent. That’s one of the reasons we celebrate with Easter eggs. After 40 days of having no eggs, they became part of Easter morning breakfast traditions. Eggs are also symbols of new life, which is what we all received on Easter Sunday.
In addition to fasting, we are asked to offer up prayers and almsgiving. Prayer is said to be our relationship with God, almsgiving is our relationship with others, and fasting is our relationship with ourselves.
So why 40 days?
You really need look no further than the bible for the answer, as 40 is a very significant number throughout scripture. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai, the Great Flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights, the Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 years, and Jesus spent 40 days in the garden praying and preparing for God’s plan.
If you look even closer at all of those, one thing sticks out: they all involve pain and struggle. Our Lenten sacrifices shouldn’t give us pain, but they should remind us that God uses suffering to bring us closer to Him.
There’s something else that takes 40 days to complete: birth. When a pregnant woman reaches her 40th week, she is considered full term. Ironic? Probably not.
Lent hasn’t always been 40 days long however. In early times, the fasting time leading up to Easter was as short as two days but got gradually longer and longer and by the 4th century, it officially began six weeks before Easter. Fasting is not required on Sundays though, so Ash Wednesday and the three days following it were added, giving us today’s 40 days of Lent.
Okay, but why is it called Lent?
The English word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “Lencten” meaning “spring.” It is also derived from the German word “Lenzin,” which means “long” as in the lengthening of days as spring approaches. It can also be looked at as a time during which we can work on lengthening the time we spend in prayer and charity.
Lent is practiced all over the world, so naturally there is a word for it in almost every language. Most of those words have something to do with the number 40. In Italian it is “quaresima” and derived from the Italian word for 40, quaranta. Same with Spanish, where is it “cuaresma” and similar to “cuarenta, the Spanish word for 40. In French they call it “careme,” which is similar to “quarante,” the French word for 40.
Lent is a time to renew your mind, body, and spirit. It’s also a time to grow in your faith and prayer life. And, it’s not just a Catholic thing. Observed in Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Eastern Orthodox faiths, Lent officially began on Ash Wednesday and will end on Holy Thursday, March 13.
There’s still time to make those amends and find that spirituality. In reality though, there is always time for them. Lent simply reminds us of the importance of doing so but if you’re like me, a timetable and deadline are pretty much all I need to succeed at something. And the way I look at it, if Moses, Noah, and Jesus could all do it, so can I.