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Lent: May the Fasting Begin

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Lent officially began February 25, on Ash Wednesday, and will continue for forty days. Lent is a season of soul-searching, repentance, and reflection. It originated in the very earliest days of the Church as a preparatory time for Easter, when the faithful rededicated themselves, and when converts were instructed in the faith and prepared for baptism. By observing the days of Lent, the individual Christian imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days.

In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church prescribed what was on the daily menu. Each week counted at least one day, and more often three or even four days (depending on where and when in medieval Europe) during which no meat was to be eaten. For many Catholics, Friday was still an obligatory “fish day” until well into the twentieth century. In this way one was weekly reminded of Jesus who died on the cross on what we call “Good Friday.” Other possible days of fasting were Wednesday (because of Judas’ treason) and Saturday (to honor the Virgin Mary).

Together with this weekly cycle, there was also an annual cycle of fasting days: the Ember Days (these mark the beginning of the new seasons, in December, March, June, and September), Advent (the four weeks before Christmas), and Lent (the six weeks between Carnival and Easter). Added together, this means that to the medieval Christian, meat was prohibited during a third to more than half of all the days in the year. Eating of fish was allowed. A simple explanation is that during the Biblical Flood meant to punish mankind for its sins, all fish survived! It was clear that fish were free of all sin.

Because Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, we skip over Sundays when we calculate the length of Lent. Therefore, in the Western Church, Lent always begins on the seventh Wednesday before Easter. In many countries, the last day before Lent (called Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Carnival) has become a last fling before the solemnity of Lent. For centuries, it was customary to fast by abstaining from meat during Lent, which is why some people call the festival Carnival, which is Latin for farewell to meat. 

The Eastern Church does not skip over Sundays when calculating the length of the Great Lent. Therefore, the Great Lent always begins on Clean Monday, the seventh Monday before Easter, and ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday—using of course the eastern date for Easter. 

Generally speaking, Lent is a period of preparation … of meditation and focus, of  “giving up” what no longer serves us. It is a perfect time to eliminate negative thinking. Regardless of what spiritual convictions we are aligned with, if we can eliminate negative thoughts, judgments, and attitudes, our positive, peaceful mindset will benefit those around us. 

Let’s consider making a commitment to get on a mental diet for the next forty-six days. Are you ready? 

Bits of historical information cited in the post were found here.

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