Lent reconsidered through a pandemic lens

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It may seem fitting that the latter part of the Christian season of Lent this year coincides with the anniversary of a global pandemic.

Many people, with the exception of devout Catholics, will not pay the season much attention at all, at least until the latter part of the week preceding Easter, when some churches mark Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in addition to Easter Sunday.

Lent is a 40 day commemoration of Jesus’ sacrifice and death, paralleling the 40 days when the New Testament accounts record his fasting and temptation in the desert.

While a majority of Catholics are likely to observe Lent, those numbers drop to under 30 percent among evangelicals and 20 per cent for Protestants, one US survey suggests.

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Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a time of contemplation and sacrifice. It is marked at Catholic masses and some Protestant services, with congregants’ foreheads being traced with a cross made out of ashes, as well as the reminder that we all came from dust, and will return to dust.

Fasting, a commonly suggested spiritual practice for Lent (a 40 day period which doesn’t include Sundays,) first became associated with the Lenten season after the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, three centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection.

Outside of Eastern Orthodox traditions, adherence to a strict regimen of restricting food intake is most often discussed in modern Western society not as a spiritual practice, but as a popular diet approach.

When people do pay attention to the suggestion of fasting through Lent, it is often in symbolic token actions such as giving up a favorite food, snack or beverage, aside from Catholics eating fish instead of meat on Fridays. Others speak of giving up distractions and favorite pastimes.

Asking people to give things up may seem a difficult argument to make at a time when lockdowns have reduced the mobility and interactions of so many.

Isaiah 58 in the Old Testament calls people to a more outward looking selfless posture. These words are just as appropriate today as when they were written thousands of years ago:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

The pandemic has taken a horrific toll on marginalized people around the world, particularly on women, youth, and people of color, in developing nations.

Perhaps the most acceptable sacrifice that could be made this Lent season would be increasing our financial giving. An enhanced and ongoing commitment to increased charitable gifts, both for relief and to development organizations that help enhance people’s ability to meet the basic needs of their families, is much more spiritually and materially significant than six weeks of giving up chocolate.

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