Probably Lent is misunderstood more than any other liturgical season. This misunderstanding has a long history. Mention Lent and most people would point to fasting and abstinence from meat almost as if these are synonyms of the word ‘Lent’. This reductionist approach (a worse one further down) easily explains the popular devaluation of the meaning of Lent.
What are two days of fasting in a culture chockfull of diet regimes which are stricter than anything the Church requests from Catholics on just two days a year?
Are chickens fish?
Truth be told, abstinence from meat has a chequered history. The answer to the apparently simple question “what is meat?” was as varied as it was controversial. Nichola Fletcher (2004) in his book Charlemagne’s Tablecloth. A Piquant History of Feasting, reminds readers that Aquinas believed that chickens could be eaten on days of abstinence because they were of aquatic origin. Barnacle geese and some other water fowl were also acceptable because they had scaly webbed feet.
Some monasteries used to breed rabbits as it was accepted that foetuses of rabbits could be eaten on days of abstinence. Vaclav Smil (2019), in his book Should We Eat Meat?: Evolution and Consequences of Modern Carnivory, refers to the discussion on whether crickets count as meat.
The 17th century writer Edward Topsell describes the culinary qualities of the beaver’s tail for eating on fasting days. Perhaps a pastoral reason underpinned this position given that beavers were so common and assessable in Quebec. Please remember that days of abstinence used to be very frequent.
But I digress.
In a culture which urges all to eat less meat, what is the significance of the Lenten precept of not eating meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday?
Do mix politics and religion
There is another more misguided reductionist approach to Lent. Over the ages this season has been reduced, at least in the perception of many, to a time of individualist spirituality consisting mainly of making sacrifices. Take, for example, this quote from Moriarty’s The Secret Husband, to understand how uselessly frustrating such a narrow understanding of Lent can be:
“Why did she give up wine for Lent? Polly was more sensible. She had given up strawberry jam. Cecilia had never seen Polly show more than a passing interest in strawberry jam, although now, of course, she was always catching her standing at the open fridge, staring at it longingly. The power of denial.”
Lent is light years distant from this restricted and restrictive interpretation. This reflects the similar simplistic view of religion as a private thing regulating one’s relationship with God; whereas politics covers one’s relationship with the public world.
This limited view evidences a dualistic concept of the human person operating in two separate worlds that have little to do with each other: the sacred and the profane. Those who defend this view say that it is good for religion if it is left out of politics. Little do they realise that the option to divorce faith from the public sector is itself a political act with possibly devastating results. Such a disincarnate religion either fails to challenge the status quo or it leaves the public sphere in the hands of forces which may well be oppressive and evil.
During Lent fight corruption
Christianity is made of sterner stuff. Christian celebrations, such as Lent, are thus political more than pietistic, communitarian more than individualistic, and have to do with this ‘world’ as it is in this world that we consolidate our place in the afterlife.
Lent will be a period of better preparation for Easter if you engage in these political acts instead of limiting yourself to individualistic pietistic exercises
During Lent the Church regales us, among other things, with readings from Matthew’s rendering of the Sermon on the Mount which is a reveille for radical societal changes; an outline of a political strategy. During Lent the Church proposes fasting, prayer and acts of charity not mainly as pietistic devotional exercises but as the antitheses of the glorification of consumption, production and money which are the foundation stones of a dehumanising capitalist society gone awry.
Acts of charity undermine the secular dogma that only money makes the world go round. Pope Francis lambasted this dogma in his 2017 Lenten message describing the lust for money as the main cause of corruption, as a tyrannical idol and as the antithesis of solidarity. The fight against corruption is one of the basic themes of Francis’s papacy.
In the same spirit as that of Francis, our own bishops in their Lent Pastoral Letter also felt the need to warn us against “worrisome situations” such as corruption as well as “the erosion of trust in institutions, the lack of respect for human life from conception, poverty, [and the] destruction of the environment”.
The degradation of the environment similarly features in the Pope’s 2019 Lenten message. He appeals for the redemption of creation and for the building of a harmonious relationship with the environment in which we live. He states that this degradation is one of the negative effects of what he describes as the “cooling of charity”.
He outlines other horrible consequence of such cooling:
“The earth is poisoned by refuse, discarded out of carelessness or for self-interest. The seas, themselves polluted, engulf the remains of countless shipwrecked victims of forced migration. The heavens, which in God’s plan, were created to sing His praises, are rent by engines raining down implements of death.”
Lent as a counter culture
The preceding paragraph is more akin to a political manifesto than to pietistic whimpering. As if all this is not political enough, Pope Francis describes Lent as a counter-culture to the dominant contemporary culture. On this year’s Ash Wednesday Francis spoke against the “culture of appearance prevalent today, which persuades us to live for passing things”. He describes Lent as the time when we free ourselves from this “great deception” and “illusion”.
In his 2016 Lenten message the Pope attacks another dogma of contemporary culture: the Promethean temptation. He wrote that this “proud illusion of our own omnipotence” resulted in totalitarian social and political structures during the last century. Today it translates in ideologies of monopolising thought and technoscience “which would make God irrelevant and reduce man to raw material to be exploited”, as well as in a model of false development which is unjust to the poor.
More than sweets and desserts
So this Lent don’t feel obliged to just abstain from sweets, desserts or moderately drinking alcohol. Instead do feel obliged to join an environmental group; support an NGO working for good governance and against the rape of our institutions; take active steps against corruption; help the anti-poverty forum; give a voice to the unborn who are threatened by abortion; lobby against the legalisation of marijuana for recreational use; write posts on Facebook supporting refugees; register your protest with public officials who abrogated their role of defending the public; or work for the just distribution of wealth in our country.
Lent will be a period of better preparation for Easter if you engage in these political acts instead of limiting yourself to individualistic pietistic exercises.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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