LENT AND FASTING February 15, 2013

We have just entered the season of Lent. Thinking about the history of this time tells us a lot about the church’s changing attitudes to those very Biblical ideas of fasting and penance.

To understand where this time came from, it’s helpful – oddly – to look first at Muslim practice. Muslims today have a month-long-season called Ramadan that looks quite ferocious to most Christians. Between the hours of dawn and dusk, Muslims can eat or drink absolutely nothing. This is very demanding in a hot climate, and in 2013, Ramadan falls in July. They take this fasting very seriously indeed.

Christians looking at that example may wonder where on earth Muslims got this bizarre idea, but the answer is simple. When Islam arose in the seventh century, members of the new faith just took over the older Christian practice of Lent. In those times, the Christian Lent did not mean anything as simple as giving up chocolate or luxuries. It meant really demanding fasting, exactly like the modern Ramadan, a scale of self-denial that seems unimaginable to most Western believers today.

To see just what Lent meant in earlier times – between about 500 and 1600 – we can also look at some ancient churches around the world, like in Christian Ethiopia: “This fast follows the old law, for they do not eat at midday, and when the sun is setting they go to church and confess and communicate and then go to supper.” Even when allowed to eat, “they eat nothing that has suffered death, nor milk, nor cheese, nor eggs, nor butter, nor honey, nor drink wine. Thus during the fast days they eat only bread of millet, wheat and pulse, all mixed together, spinach and herbs cooked with oil.” A Western observer noted that “The severity of their fasts is equal to that of the primitive church. In Lent they never eat till after sunset.” They kept that up for forty tough days.

In medieval times, European Christians also behaved rather like that. In fact, some accounts suggest that, especially in Holy Week, Christians were expected to get by on two or three meals in the entire week, never mind in any given day.

People needed serious preparation to face such rigors.

Medieval Christians got ready for Lent in the weeks before Ash Wednesday, when they would go to Confession to be absolved of their sins. The old English word for absolve is “shrive” – and that is why we have Shrove Tuesday. It fell in a season that the English called Shrovetide, “Confession Season.”

Lent in medieval times involved an absolute ban on meat. In Latin, it was the time of the “taking away of flesh” (carne levare), which produced our word Carnival. Some people think the word might stem from “Farewell, Meat!” (Carne vale!), but the underlying idea is the same.

Strict prohibitions extended not just to meat but also to dairy products, as well as fat and eggs. People ransacked their houses for these items and made sure to eat them up on a special day, while they still could. Pancakes were a great way of using up everything in the larder.

This day of last possible opportunity had different names. For French-speaking countries, it was Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras. Germans had the same name, as fetter Dienstag. Depending on where you lived, that pre-Lent time ranged far beyond the immediate Tuesday, and sometimes extended for weeks beforehand.

Then as now, Mardi Gras and Shrovetide were times for partying, merrymaking, sports, and carnival, before the season of renunciation and fasting began in earnest. I know it’s only a wonderful coincidence, but if American football had existed back in the Middle Ages, there would have been no better time to schedule the Superbowl than in early February!

But just imagine if a modern church tried to enforce those Lenten rules anything like as severely as in the Middle Ages. We would think we were dealing with some fanatical cult.

Once upon a time, though, that was absolutely the Christian norm. What a radically different attitude this all suggests to the human body and the physical world. And also to the degree of devotion that could be expected of ordinary lay believers.

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  • John Turner

    This is marvelous, Philip.

    What’s the source of the quotation from the Ethiopian church?

  • Philip Jenkins

    I quote this in my LOST HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, drawing from Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig and Marian Delgado, eds., History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 159; Father Jeronimo Lobo, “Voyage to Abyssinia,” online at http://lobo.thefreelibrary.com/Voyage-to-Abyssinia/3-4

  • Kathy Hanneman

    The members of Eastern Orthodox Churches (yes, even in America) still observe similar fasting. For the 40 days of Lent and the separate season of Holy Week, there is no meat, dairy or eggs. While a discipline rather than a law, the idea is to prepare for the joy and celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. One is also to spend more time in prayer and to give help to the needy. BTW this year our Lent doesn’t begin until March 18 because our Easter isn’t until May 5 as it may never occur before Passover.

  • Philip Jenkins

    Indeed they do, and thank you for the reminder. Frederica Mathewes Green has some great writing on this topic.

  • Would to God that this piece had a much wider distribution! How is that Saint Benedict spoke of Lent as a time of joy? And how is it that Muslims to this day welcome Ramadan as they would a dear friend? Christians have allowed this gift to be little more than a memory of a bygone era. What experience did Benedict have that led him to encourage others to “love fasting” (Rule 4:13)? It sounds contradictory to us today, but maybe he was onto something.

  • Tom Armistead

    Christians should try fasting again during Lent. I was raised a Christian and became a Baha’i in 1970. We fast totally from sunrise to sunset 19 days per year, March 2-20. Fasting has enormously enriched my spiritual development. Physically, the first week or so is somewhat challenging, but after that, my hunger pangs remind me that I am obeying God for love alone, and I feel immersed in a sea of love. For this reason, I would encourage committing to the fast for an extended period, rather than just trying it for a day or two. I always have my most illuminating insights in my devotions during this period.

  • Philip Jenkins

    Thank you! and apologies for not approving the post till just now, but I was on the road. Hoping to write more on these Lenten issues soon, especially the idea of the “Three Lents” that the church once celebrated.