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Sliming for Lent? Why not take up something?

Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers are, for Anglicans, the last vestige of the old Pre-Lenten carnival—the veritable orgy of eating, drinking and merry-making that traditionally preceded the forty day fast.

Christians in many parts of Europe still observe the Pre-Lenten Carnival; none more so than the Germans who start the carnival season (called Fasching) well before Christmas and, from then on, celebrate at frenetic pace until Ash Wednesday.

Lent is one of the oldest of all the Church seasons. Its observance can be traced back to the second century. In very early times, there was no set period for the Lenten Fast. Often, the period of abstinence lasted merely a couple of days.

The emphasis was not on our Lord’s trials and sufferings, but on his triumphant Resurrection. This was by no means illogical. After all, the focus of the faith has always be concentrated primarily upon the life-giving Resurrection promise.

Lent was, thus, a time of rejoicing rather than penitence. In our language, at least, its name reflects the fact: “Lent” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “spring.”

Lent only gradually became associated with Christ’s Forty Days of Fasting in the Wilderness. It seems that the change in focus took place during the 4th Century.

The earliest surviving reference to associating it with our Lord’s Temptation in the Wilderness is to be found in the Festal Letters of St. Athanasius, who played a prominent role in the Council of Nicea of 325 AD. (This was the council that formulated the Nicene Creed.)

Lenten observances have never been uniform throughout the Church. The Eastern Churches spread the season over eight or nine weeks, while we in the West have tended to follow the less extravagant observance of a six-week fast.

But if the Lenten Fast in the West is shorter than it was in the East, it was almost certainly more rigorous. In the days before refrigeration, modern food- processing and factory farming, the Lenten season fell at a time when there was generally an acute shortage of food.

Meat was hard to find because the cattle—slaughtered and salted or smoked at the end of the summer—had been eaten. Sheep could not be slaughtered because of the approach of the lambing season. Eggs were unobtainable, because hens were hatching their annual broods.

(Ever wondered about the origin of Easter Eggs, Easter Lamb and Easter Chicks? Easter coincided with the reappearance of all three commodities.)

With even fish was in short supply because winter storms made fishing difficult, the majority of the population had little more than grains, vegetables and milk to fall back on.

Lenten abstinences practiced by Christians today are pale in comparison with those of past generations.

They accepted, uncomplainingly, basic necessities. We, by contrast, often take Lent as a welcome opportunity to shed the extra poundage accumulated over the Christmas holiday. In fact, abstinence is often no hardship at all in these days of plenty.

A young friend was once asked what she was going to give up for Lent. “Eggs,” she replied, without hesitation. He mother then explained that the child absolutely detested eggs.

With this in mind, may be the time has come for us to redefine our notions of fasting. To be sure, we shouldn’t give up abstaining from our favorite foods, but perhaps we should start taking up things for Lent as well – something that helps a good cause or puts to good use the money we save by fasting. GPH✠

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