In most languages, the season of the Church year which we have just entered is known by a word that translates as “Fast”. “Lent”, however, comes from the old English for the season when days lengthen. But as I have been told, New Englanders used to say of this time of year: “The days grow longer and the cold grows stronger”, although global warming is changing that. Further, before modern agricultural and food-preservation techniques, early spring was often a time of hunger. I believe that this is why T. S. Eliot wrote “April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land.”
Lent was a lean time, anyway, and there was little choice for many people but to fast. This made a virtue of necessity and also preserved foodstuffs that would be available for an Easter feast. Wednesdays and Fridays were fast days observed with particular strictness. Of course, perishables that could not be used in Lent were consumed on the day before Lent, giving rise to Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday.” In the medieval English tradition this was called “Shrove Tuesday” because people went to make their confession and be “shriven” or absolved of their sins. We ate Shrove Tuesday pancakes in Britain too, but they were crepes filled with lemon juice and sugar, not flapjacks.
These days we have more than enough food and it takes a determined effort to fast but self-discipline and mindfulness are never wasted. Lent is a time to exercise both virtues. “Giving something up” for Lent may sometimes be just a token a token gesture, but it can be an opportunity, especially if we can challenge deleterious habits and break out of our ruts.
We can also challenge ourselves by taking up a discipline. We can pray, study, attend church regularly, offer ourselves in service or add spiritual or physical exercises to our routine. I once, half jokingly, committed to practicing darts for half an hour everyday. As I went on, and develop a backlog of practice time, the joke became serious and I really did have to develop a deliberate discipline as to time and attention. My dart game improved greatly. Maybe I should work on my prayer life to the same end!
So, whether we decide to try fasting, giving up deleterious habits or taking on a discipline of some sort, Lent can be a useful break from business as usual. It can serve as a kind of Sabbath for the year as Sunday serves the week. Lent can help us pay better attention to parts of life that we might otherwise take for granted or leave unexamined.