February 22, 2012

Lent in Britain


Everyone knows about Tuesday--Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Mardis Gras--but how many people pay attention to the forty days of Lent that come after that? Coming as I do from a non-denominational Protestant background, I've never had a strong liturgical foundation that involved the observance of Lent, and I was curious about how this Christian festival is celebrated in Britain. This is what I found.

Now is the healing time decreed
for sins of heart and word and deed,
when we in humble fear record
the wrong that we have done the Lord.
                                                      -(Latin, before 12th century)

penance by Sarah Korf
penance, a photo by Sarah Korf on Flickr.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. While Shrove Tuesday is all about using up tons of fat, sugar, and eggs and getting drunk, the next day is for "cleansing the soul" and begins a period of fasting and increased spirituality. 

According to the Church of England, the traditional  color for Lent is violet (in English Catholic churches up until 1970 all statues and paintings within a church would be draped in violet to symbolize Christ "hiding" Himself from the people); this color is associated with mourning and is prominent while as much adornment as possible (flowers, elaborate robes, etc.) is removed from the sanctuary. Church-goers receive a sacramental cross of ashes on their forehead (every year I see people with smudges on their foreheads and am left wondering... until I finally remember what day it is). 


God our Father, you create us from the dust of the earth.
Grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence, and a symbol of our mortality.
                                                                                                                           -Traditional Ash Wednesday prayer

The "fasting" which follows Ash Wednesday is exceedingly relative, especially in a modern Britain in which a scant 12% of citizens feel they belong to a church. If you were a British Christian in the Middle Ages you would probably abstain from all animal products during Lent, except perhaps fish. You might even go without food all day long, or eat only a small vegetarian meal after 3 o'clock. Nowadays fasting looks quite different, with more emphasis being placed on giving up a few special delicacies or vices, or doing something positive instead of abstaining from something negative. According to the Christian Today website, 17% of those who will observe Lent plan to give up chocolates or other sweets, 8% want to give up alcohol, 10% plan on giving to charity, 17% want to stop shopping for non-essential items, and 21% intend to do something kind. 

Lent has fully entered into the modern age, with Christians giving up social media (minister David Jones is abstaining from Twitter), and even carbon emissions to protect the environment; yet some Christians are still going old-school and advocating a more vegetarian diet (more out of compassion for animals than penitence). 

Many suggestions made by the Church of England in 2012 seem almost childish in light of former practices. Hug somebody? Change a light bulb? Say something nice? Perhaps it's more "Christian" to do nice things than abstain from naughty or pleasurable things, but it's certainly less "Lent-ish".  

IMG_3298 by Bowsk
IMG_3298, a photo by Bowsk on Flickr.

Maybe you're not religious at all. Maybe you're stuck in the rut of giving up chocolate and coffee for 40 days. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, you might want to look into all of this a little further. Consider getting the Reflections for Lent App on iTunes, helping others through CAFOD or Send a Cow, or reading 40 ideas for Lent

What do you think about Lent? Is it an antiquated tradition, or something we ought to pay more attention to? 

Brit-Bit: What does the word "lent" mean? It comes from the Old English word meaning "to lengthen", and refers to the time of year when the days begin to grow longer. Find more Lent facts here.


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