Flipping the meaning of Lent

Ah Lent, the 40 day diet bookended by two days set aside for splurging out on sugar. Good old Jesus, "the friend of sweet tooths, tax collectors and branded corporations". What would our gastronomical year be without him? No pancakes, no Easter eggs, no hot cross buns, no chocolate advent calendars. It would be a bleaker, and nutritionally better, place without him it seems.

As everyone on a mission to procrastinate knows, there is nothing like food to serve as a distraction. Most obviously, it is a pleasurable diversion. Hunting out the right ingredients, the best recipes, and delighting in the finished product crowds out the original, liturgical purpose of Shrove Tuesday. But equally, worrying about weight, moralising food as either 'good' or 'bad' depending on its calorific content, masks the real problem with humanity. Not our waistlines but our hearts. It was with the latter that Shrove Tuesday was originally meant to deal: Christians went to confession on that day to be 'shriven' or absolved of their sins. The 40 days of Lent that followed were the working out of that repentance: a reconsecration to God, cutting back or stripping down to be reminded of how our most ultimate needs are met by Him.

Shrove Tuesday was once marked by pancakes because they use up eggs and fats before the Lenten fast was embarked upon, and cupboards were thereby rid of their opportunity to tempt. Now, however, it appears it is a consumer society in which we "live and move and have our being", rather than in God. So the rebranded 'Pancake Day' is now yet another reason to buy. Ready-made mixes, pre-squeezed lemons, and gourmet spreads – they all testify not only to our unwillingness to give up and go without (after all, who doesn't buy extra eggs to add to their pancake mix instead of using them up for the rest of the season) but also to our distaste for hard work. Where there is a 'long' way of doing things, there is a brand to cut out the unnecessary graft. When squeezing a lemon ourselves seems a bridge too far in terms of the time and effort we will expend for a meal with family or friends, something seems badly wrong.

as long as we are captive to the logic of consumerism then Good Friday will strike us as idiocy

The cost, however, is not just financial (and environmental): it is also the missed opportunity to enjoy spending time working together, to feel fulfilled by a job well done, or to appreciate lessons learned. Perhaps more seriously, our continual surrender to immediate gratification opposes the very purpose of Lent – to develop virtues that make us more Christ-like: patience, endurance, forbearance, faith, and simplicity.

A society so frivolous with its resources, so begrudging of its time, is not a society based on the love of God and love of neighbour that Jesus advocated. Lent is supposed to help us realign our hearts so that we are more in tune with God's purposes for our lives. And certainly, it can be wrongly made legalistic – a demonstration of our own strength, an attempt at self-justification. Or it can be made Platonic – we can wrongly think that the things of this earth are inherently bad and so must be transcended to make us spiritually pure. But it can be a time of preparing our hearts and minds for the true message of Easter. Because as long as we are captive to the logic of consumerism – that our current wants are our truest needs and that we can buy our way into wholeness – then Good Friday will strike us as idiocy.

But just who is this God? A God who sees that humanity has fundamentally gone wrong (and not just by buying the wrong brands), but is worth rescuing? A God who sacrifices? Buying more does not lead to this God who, in human form, said He had come so that we might have life to the full. But it is to Him that Lent, and Shrove Tuesday, should point.

Which means a change of direction. A flipping, if you will.

© 2016 Florence Gildea

This article is reproduced here by the kind permission of the author.