Lent is coming! When I was young, I was confident in what Lent was and what it meant. Now I’m older, it gets more mysterious and complex. This week marks the start of the forty-day (plus Sundays) period which is one of the two seasons in the liturgical year where the purple of penitence is the colour adopted. But Lent starts not so much with the fasting of Ash Wednesday as it does with the feasting of Shrove Tuesday. You might know it as Pancake Tuesday, or Carnivale, or Mardi Gras.
Nowadays, Shrove Tuesday is more about cooking pancakes and the tourist trap excesses in New Orleans than a primarily religious festival, but its roots lie in the practices for Lent. “Shrove” comes from “shrive”, meaning to go to confession and be “shriven” of your sins. Since the practice of the laity regularly receiving the Eucharist had reached its lowest ebb during the Middle Ages, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 found it necessary to compel people, under pain of excommunication, to receive at the minimum once a year. The Six Laws of the Church, which still bind Catholics even today, require the following:
III. To confess our sins to a priest, at least once a year.
IV. To receive Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist at least once a year during the Easter Season.
‘Christmas and Easter’ Christians have a long pedigree, since the mediaeval laity adopted the norm of making the required annual communion at Easter, and so in preparation everyone would make the effort to go to confession before Lent started. Up to recent times, this was known as “making your Easter Duty” and you were supposed to go to confession and receive communion at least once during the period between Ash Wednesday and the Sunday after Easter Sunday.
That’s one part of the tradition; the second part comes from the fact that fasting and abstinence used to be much more severe in the Western Church (and still is, in the Eastern Church). Meat, eggs and dairy products were generally forbidden for consumption during Lent, so Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras or Carnivale meant that this was your last chance to use up all your eggs and butter and milk and meat products, and your last chance to enjoy these foods, before Lent began with Ash Wednesday. So the “farewell to the flesh” took place in one last splurge of indulgence, then repentance and a sort of Spring Cleaning for the Soul (to go with your Chicken Soup, as it were).
After the merriment and excesses of Shrove, Lent officially begins with Ash Wednesday. The ashes of repentance, the ashes from the burned triumphal palms of the entry into Jerusalem, mark us as the ones formed from the dust of the earth whose fate is to return to that dust. Ash Wednesday is our mortality – for those of all religions and none, the one great, inescapable truth remains, the one thing we all know for absolute certain: we will all die. Cryonics and transhumanism may be the modern dreams of attaining the elixir of immortality, but no matter how excellent our medical sciences or how healthy our lifestyles, we all must one day die.
Ash Wednesday is the acknowledgement, acceptance, and proclamation of that fact.
So Lent and Advent are the two halves of the year, with contrasting fasts and feasts: Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, Lent and Easter, Advent and Christmas. In the times when Advent was also a penitential season of fasting like Lent, the equivalent of Shrove Tuesday was Martinmas, the November feast of St. Martin of Tours. Roast goose or roast pig were the favoured meals, along with plenty of the new wine. Just like Shrove, you consumed all the good rich foods before the time of fasting began. (And just like Shrove, you were probably happy to eat little and drink nothing stronger than water the next day, after the feasting and celebrating).
But Advent is a time of anticipation and joyful awaiting, looking forward to both Christmas and the Second Coming, whereas Lent is colder and more sombre, even though Advent takes us into Winter and Lent brings us into Spring. A contradiction? Or an invitation to look deeper?
The first thing to say is that Lent is not sufficient. Not if we think that we are intended to live in a Lenten way permanently, or that Lent is the better, more spiritual, more pleasing to God, more religious state that our souls and bodies should be permanently striving after and attaining. Lent is not an end in itself, it is a preparation.
The second thing to say is that Lent is for our benefit, not God’s. We are not somehow doing more or better or giving or gaining anything that adds to God’s grace, or makes up our deficiencies to God, or is of a straw’s weight in pleasing or satisfying or appeasing or turning away wrath or anything of the like. Yes, God is pleased when we make sacrifices, but the important thing there is the making, not the sacrifice; the intent to conform our wills to God’s will, not “Look at this huge pile of effort and mortification I made, isn’t it wonderful?” We all have to learn what we have been told to learn in Matthew 9: 13 “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Lent is the road to Calvary, the destination we see in the distance, coming ever closer; a place we do not wish to go, but where all our hopes of glory and vindication – the acclamations of Palm Sunday – will bring us. Lent is our Gethsemane, where we have been asked to watch an hour. Like James, John and Peter, like the wise and the foolish virgins watching for the bridegroom, who fell asleep while waiting, the bridegroom came and found them sleeping. And not just once, but three times!
Lent is Gethsemane. And like Peter, we find our proud boasts turn to ashes and denial. Everyone starts out with great intentions, but keeping going for forty days in the turmoils of everyday life – that’s too hard. We all fall, we all slip up, we all find ourselves not becoming more cheerful and kind and loving as we go on, but instead counting the days and looking for loopholes and – well, and falling asleep while we wait for the bridegroom.
This is the use of Lent: to strip all our pretensions away, so that we see truly how poor in spirit we are – and it is only then, only when we see our nakedness and poverty, that we can cry out like beggars “Son of David, have pity on me!” And it is only then that we can come to our inheritance, the kingdom of Heaven, which belongs to the poor in spirit.
Lent is also, in a way, a relief; a spring cleaning, a de-cluttering. Stripping away everything can be a liberation, if we throw away our artifice and our fashionable affectations, as the poem by Ben Jonson has it:
Still to be neat, still to be drest,
As you were going to a feast;
Still to be powder’d, still perfum’d:
Lady, it is to be presum’d,
Though art’s hid causes are not found,
All is not sweet, all is not sound.
Give me a look, give me a face,
That makes simplicity a grace;
Robes loosely flowing, hair as free:
Such sweet neglect more taketh me
Than all th’ adulteries of art;
They strike mine eyes, but not my heart.
Lent is related to baptism; both in the tradition of the catechumens being baptised and receiving the other two sacraments of Christian initiation – confirmation and Eucharist – at the Easter Vigil, and in the sense of how we have all died with Christ through our baptism. As it is stated in Romans 6: 3-4 “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Since Lent brings us along the road to Calvary and the death of Christ, so too it brings us through death into resurrection by this mystery of union with Christ through baptism.
The waters of baptism are the waters of death and of rebirth. The baptismal waters can be associated with the waters of the ritual bath in Judaism, the mikvah :
The mikvah as an institution is the victim of a popular misconception. Immersion in water is naturally associated with cleansing.
- But the mikvah never was a monthly substitute for a bath or shower.
- Immersion in the mikvah has offered a gateway to purity ever since the creation of man. The Midrash relates that after being banished from Eden, Adam sat in a river that flowed from the garden. This was an integral part of his teshuvah (repentance) process, of his attempt at return to his original perfection.
- Simply put, immersion in a mikvah signals a change in status – more correctly, an elevation in status. Its unparalleled function lies in its power of transformation, its ability to effect metamorphosis.
But we must always be careful to remember the warning in Matthew 12: 43-45: “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
The purpose of the Lenten cleansing is very like the reason we spring clean our houses. Our hearts are to be temples of the Holy Spirit, not for whatever idols we construct in imitation. It does us little good to clear away all the clutter and if we fill the empty space up again with spiritual pride and arrogance.
In Lent, we are on a journey; we are the people of Israel seeking the Promised Land, wandering and gone astray; we are passing through the desert, through the “waterless places seeking rest”. To quote from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land”:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust
…Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mud-cracked houses
If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water
For Peter and the rest of the apostles, their Lent was their desertion of Christ. For us, what Lent means is that we are Cinderella, raised from the ashes to be a Princess. The contrast between the two states is the whole point of the story; if Cinderella had always been treated like the daughter of a baron, would we see any great difference or understand the reward she gained? From the ashes of Ash Wednesday, we ascend to the promise of Romans 8: 16-17: “16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
Lent is not a destination and not a stopping place, certainly not a rest stop; it is a journey and a passing-through, a travelling onwards to the true destination – to the springs of living water.