I’m never quite ready for Lent. It seems to creep up on cat’s paws too quickly and before I’ve fully recuperated from Christmas, there I am at the altar, having someone smear my forehead with ashes and being reminded of my own mortality. “Remember, woman, that thou art dust and until dust shalt thou return.”
Not that I don’t think about my mortality on most days. I’m one of those people who find the contemplation of my own death oddly comforting. I’m not in any hurry, you understand, but it does grant a certain perspective, and helps to whittle petty annoyances down to size.
In fact, I kind of dig Lent. I like the idea of taking some time to get quiet and still and do an inventory of what’s in my spiritual attic – what needs cleaning out, or repairing, or needs to be restored in some way or other. It’s a symbol of re-birth, the death of an old way of life, one with is no longer healthy or useful, and being born into a new life, one in deeper harmony with the Sacred.
Christians like to think they invented Lent, but of course, they (we) like to think that about lots of stuff, like Christmas trees and All Saints Day, neither of which originated with a nice Jewish rabbi in Jerusulem, or even the idea of a god that dies and is born again, for that matter. Consider Osiris, Isis and Horus, the Egyptian resurrectional trinity, or Tammuz, the Babylonian God of Vegetation, or Adonis, to name a few.
The reason Lent comes at this time of year is far more complicated, of course, than it truly being 40 days before Christ was crucified, and symbolic of Christ’s time of temptation and fasting in the wilderness. Remember that the dating of Easter was a matter of dispute between Celtic Christians and Roman Christians up until the Synod at Whitby in 663.
Since I’m working on a novel set in the 7th c Anglo-Saxon world, my research has taught me all sorts of interesting things. The word ‘lent,’ for example, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘lencten’ which means spring, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘lenctentid’ (pronounced LENG-ten-teed), the name for the entire spring season, meaning the lengthening and flowering time. The ancient Anglo-Saxons (and other pagans) celebrated the return of spring with somewhat boisterous festivals commemorating their goddess of fertility and springtime, Eastre, the name from which the Christian word Easter is derived. The Venerable Bede (I do love that name) states in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People that the name refers to the fourth month of the year, Eostremonath, which was named for the aforementioned goddess, celebrated at the spring equinox.
The pagan religion taught that Eostre was responsible for changing a bird into a rabbit, which gives us the Easter bunny. Rabbits symbolize the fertility of springtime and at this time of year show a rather startling capacity for producing young. It’s also interesting to note that many ancient peoples, including the Anglo-Saxons, held spring festivals to celebrate the rebirth life in which the egg was a symbol of fertility, life and re-birth. The old Latin proverb comes to mind — Omne vivum ex ovo — “all life comes from an egg.”
But regardless or its origins, the idea of Lent has, I think, enormous benefit. Lent should be a time of renewal, as much as that moment when the longest day is over and the light returns to the world. It can be a time to confront our demons and expel them. It can be one of those moments when we look up, notice we’re WAY off track, and correct. We can note where we might need to make an amends, and make it, sincerely and joyfully, hopefully healing someone’s heart in the process, and scraping up all those nasty little bits of guilt gnawing away at our insides. Maybe there is someone we have to forgive, in order to be a peace with ourselves and with our neighbor. Maybe there’s an addiction we should give up — booze, cigarettes, gossip, drugs…
People give up all sorts of things for Lent — sugar, caffeine, meat — as a way of reminding ourselves, during these forty days, that we are in the process of returning home. Every time we reach for the sugar bowl and then remember we’re not eating that stuff during this time, we are reminded that instead, we are turning to the sacred.
So, I’ve been thinking about what I’m giving up, what I’d like to use as a reminder or what kind of relationship I’d like to have The Ineffable. I am a person who is easily distracted by shiny things, and many of those glittering objects shimmer with an unwholesome cast. So, for this Lent, as well as pledging a little more time for prayer and meditation, I’ve decided to turn off the news in all forms.
Why? Well, the other day I found myself listening to a ridiculous and toxic rant by a big-headed, big-mouthed blowhard of the extreme conservative right. He was blithering on about how President Obama wants to fill us with fear so that he and the democrats can impose their evil agenda on us. (Frankly, why he wasn’t crushed under the weight of his own irony, I just don’t know.) I realized I was really, really angry listening to him, and that there was nothing worthwhile in his message. Then I read an article this morning the the National Post about Conrad Black and what a lovely time he’s having in prison, where he’s serving a well-deserved sentence for fraud. Now, I suspect Mr. B isn’t having nearly as nice a time as he pretends, and that he’s just hoping to annoy people by chatting about his piano lessons and his reading and his ‘convivial friends,’ but I realized, again, that there was nothing nourishing about any of this babble, and that it was just another example of the multitude of distractions out there.
So, I’m giving up news for 40 days, and who knows, maybe longer. I want to quiet the cynicism, the nastiness, the self-importance, the pessimism, the snarkiness, the competitiveness, the aggression… in short, I want to see what 40 days of living in the world as it exists right here, right now, right in my own home and my own neighborhood, more in the company of The Ineffable than CNN or FOX News, will bring me. I suspect it will bring me more peace, more optimism, and will leave more room for grace. I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this season of renewal.