Lenctening Days

No, that’s not a typo.

Recently I learned that the word “Lent” {today–Ash Wednesday–is the first day of Lent} comes from the Old English ‘lencten,’ which sounds a lot like “lengthen” and, not incidentally, was the Old English word for Spring–that time when the days, well, lengthen.

Despite the admiration I’ve always had for traditional Lenten disciplines, this time of year–when I forget to start dinner on time because the growing evening light tricks me, when I’m drawn from sleep by the unexpected brightness of the morning sun–this time of year tends to make me a bit giddy. Meditating on dust returning to dust seems opposite to how I feel when Spring is, well, lenctening. Springing.

But maybe that’s reasonable. Lent is the season where deadness springs to life: snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils cautiously raise their green and brilliant heads, stoic strawberry leaves unfold and tentatively sent out runners, tired, swollen goats bend to release their burdens in bringing forth light-footed young.

At this time everything in nature seems to be stretching and yawning awake after a long sleep, lively after months of sluggish drowsing.

Maybe Lent serves as a counterpoint to all this; a reminder that even as the grass “flourishes and is renewed” in the morning, “in the evening it fades and withers.” That God alone is everlasting.

It’s a sobering thought, but somehow, a joyful one. And so I hope this Lent not to curtail or cut back but to lencten: to take joy and satisfaction in God and in God’s gift of each lengthening, springing, light-filled moment.

Overly cute bunny gnawing a strawberry leaf. I can't help myself.

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
   so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
   and for as many years as we have seen evil.
{…}
Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
   and prosper for us the work of our hands.

Psalm 90, NRSV

Lenting Fasting; Easter Feasting

I’m not sure what the actual stats were, but it sure seemed like most of the kids in my high school were Catholic. When I started going there as an eighth grader, everyone (it seemed) was busy making their confirmations. On Ash Wednesday, lots of people went around looking like this:
And while I’m pretty sure it wasn’t constitutional or whatever, somehow it seems that the school lunches on Fridays during Lent tended toward the fish stick and pizza variety and away from the fleisch products. Could it have been so? I can’t be sure, but I definitely remember people “giving up” various things–chocolate, swearing, soda–for Lent.
I must admit, I always felt a little left out as one of the few Protestant-y type Christians. Because I don’t how much my A Beka curriculum told me that the Catholic Church was BAD, I found all that liturgy and incense and images and ashes and abnegation attractive; a welcome change from the excessively inward “is your heart right with God?” kind of thing. I could always see–can still see–how holding a cross and a circle of beads might help one’s mind stay on one’s prayers.
But it wasn’t until after college, I think, that I started to see some of my fellow evangelical-type Christians practicing Lent in the more modern style of “giving something up.”
(Orthodox Christians still go vegan for Lent; traditionally, Lenten fasts involved limiting meals to one a day and fasting from various animal products. Hence, Mardi Gras-type celebrations are called Carnival in Latin America: “farewell, medium-well!”)
Some Christians see the tradition of Lent–beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending forty days later, on Easter Sunday–as a way of “fasting while the Bridegroom is taken.” Others see it as a way of participating in Jesus’ 40 days of desert temptation. In any case, practicing some kind of fasting during Lent is definitely no longer a ‘Catholic’ thing. What’s its appeal?
1.  Lenten Fasting Makes Outward and Visible Stuff That Is Otherwise Just In Your Head
A vintage (circa 1960) Christianity Today article put it this way:
“Lent can become a time when material things are put again in their proper secondary position; when we see in the spiritual the unconquerable forces of life. It can become a time of self-examination, when we reflect upon our present position in the pilgrimage and check our directions. It can become a time of personal readjustment, not through mental resolutions to do better but through yielding ourselves afresh to the God who demands to be obeyed. And it can become a time when, by following the battered path to Calvary, we identify ourselves once again with the Saviour who makes all things new.”
And in an NPR interview, the inimitable Anne Lamott said:
“Ash Wednesday, to me, is about as plain as it gets — we come from ashes and return to ashes, and yet there is something, as the poets have often said, that remains standing when we’re gone.”
Hence Facebook, online, and other media-fasts. Not “I should spend less time doing this or more time doing that,” but a firm resolution to do so. Can this be ‘legalism’? Sure. Can it just be a Good and Healthy Discipline? Absolutely.
2. Lenten Fasting Gives You a Good Reason to Say No To Good Things
Andrew Santella wrote the following for Slate a few years back:
“Perhaps it’s the things that made Lent hard to take as a Catholic kid—the solemnity, the self-denial, the disappearance of hot dogs from the lunchroom—that account most for the season’s broadening appeal. I was schooled to see Lent as a time apart, a respite from the daily pursuit of self-gratification.”
And likewise Lauren Winner:
“In sated and overfed America […] fasting teaches us that we are not utterly subject to our bodily desires.”
Greediness is tiring. A season of voluntary simplicity is–or can be–one way of taking a kind of rest. Also, it can be a way of expressing solidarity with those whose simplicity is not-so-voluntary.
3. Lenten Fasting Provides a Counterpoint To Easter Feasting
My favorite Episcopalian priest I’ve never met, Robert Farrar Capon, exalts the rhythm of festal/ferial as a splendid way of ordering our appetites. Because really, how much better is Easter Dinner–how much sweeter a sacramental celebrating that Joy of Joys–when you have prepared for it by fasting?
The sensation I always remember in this regard is how incredibly tasty a nasty freeze-dried meal by the fire with friends can taste when you’ve been hiking up and over mountains all day on nothing but water and GORP–a sweet nectar/sore need dynamic.
Again, Anne Lamott on the breaking of the Lenten fast–ie, Easter Sunday:
“I’m going to go to my little church, and we will have a huge crowd of about 60 people. And I will cry a little bit … out of joy, and then I will go home, and I will have 25 people — 15 relatives and about 10 riffraff, i.e., my closest friends — and we will sit down and we will eat, the most sacred thing we do.”
Amen.
Even though I want to fast, I’m not quite sure what form that will take for me/us this year.
What is your take on Lenten fasting? Will you fast this Lent? How?
{This is the first stop on the IVP Lenten blog tour! Next up is Margot Starbuck on February 27, followed by Brent Bill, Logan Mehl-Laituri, Andrew Byers, Valerie Hess, Beth Booram, and Chad Young. Stay in touch by following @IVPbooks or @IVpress on Twitter.}