Sometimes we just make life more complicated than we need.
Let’s take giving up chocolate for Lent, for example.
This year the whole of March falls in Lent… or does it? After all, Sundays are deemed not to fall in Lent. Here’s the rationale: there are 40 days to Lent which, with Day 1 as Ash Wednesday, takes us to Day 40 being Holy Saturday… if we exclude the six Sundays. Of course if we include Sundays, Lent finishes on Palm Sunday – the beginning of Holy Week, arguably another good place to stop. (The difference is key: do you ‘give up’ chocolate completely until Palm Sunday, or have weekly boosters to help you hold out longer?)
The ‘giving up’ is a tradition of fasting for forty days before Easter, reflected by two bible stories.
Firstly, it is the period of time that Jesus was in the desert after his baptism. He went away by himself as a precursor to his ministry. The gospels say that he fasted in the desert (not just from chocolate: all food. I doubt he had Sundays off). At the end of his forty days he was tempted by Satan and skilfully chose the way of God, not the devil.
Having said that, in our reflection of the forty days of fasting, we begin Lent with the gospel reading of the Temptation – so, kind of the other way round to how Jesus experienced it.
Alternatively, the forty days echoes the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert having escaped from slavery under the Egyptians. During that time they ate nothing but manna, reflected in our abstinence from rich foods during Lent. (We eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday to eat up all the rich eggs and butter in advance.) The final plague on the Egyptians was the killing of all firstborns unless the lintel was marked with lamb’s blood, in which case God would ‘pass over’ the home… hence Passover. This was too much and Pharaoh let the Israelites go, free at last. The annual Passover celebration marks this escape, and we know Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover meal on Maundy Thursday… so, again, a slightly topsy-turvy forty day representation, as Passover comes at the end of Lent even though it began the forty years in the desert.
As I said, we don’t make it easy for ourselves.
The Eastern Orthodox tradition calls Lent a period of ‘bright sadness’, which I think is a lovely phrase. There is solemnity, penitence and humility, but we have that pervasive hope: hope in the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life, through Jesus’ death and resurrection – the events we celebrate at the end of our Lenten fast. So whatever you have decided to give up for Lent, and whether you reflect the fasting of Jesus or the abstinence of the wandering Israelites, may your journey to Easter be a time of drawing closer to our almighty, loving God.