The other day, I noticed that lemons were on offer at Tesco. Why? It was a special promotion in the run up to Pancake Day. Now, for many, the thought of flipping batter and an excuse to eat pancakes might lead to excitement or joy. But for me, when I saw that promotion in Tesco, I was filled with a sense of unease. It was a reminder that a certain time of year was coming around again: the season of Lent.
For me, Lent has always been something to take seriously. I come from a Catholic family, and so the idea of spending almost two months of every year with an extra focus on fasting and prayer is just as ingrained in my mental calendar as something like the summer holidays. Lent is, after all, a Christian season intended to humble and prepare religious believers for the much more jubilant season of Easter. Yet, whether one has a religious motivation or not, I think there are plenty of good reasons why observing the spirit of Lent is a positive and worthwhile thing to do.
Lent is, after all, a Christian season intended to humble and prepare religious believers for the much more jubilant season of Easter
The idea of Lent being adopted by non-religious believers is hardly a new one. In particular, the tradition of ‘giving something up’ that has stemmed from the Christian virtue of fasting is something that a great many people attempt for the forty-day period. The benefits of giving something up – whether an unhealthy food type or a bad habit – are obvious, and so it can be a motivation to improve your own health or even the welfare of the planet.
But something of the spirit of Lent is lost when this idea to give something up is taken in isolation. That feeling of unease I had towards the coming of Lent was more than just fear at the prospect of not being able to eat crisps for a few weeks (which I’ve traditionally ‘given up’ for as long as I can remember). Because my idea of Lent cannot be isolated simply to one small change, but rather it is a change in mindset.
The benefits of giving something up – whether an unhealthy food type or a bad habit – are obvious, and so it can be a motivation to improve your own health or even the welfare of the planet
During Lent, I am more aware of the choices I make and more determined to be my best self. And this is the case whether in dietary choices or choices about my spiritual life. The important thing is simply to embrace a spirit of humility for a period of time, such that I think more about the impact that my choices have: whether on my body, on the environment, on others or on my soul.
In the Church, it’s a time to recognise that we are sinners. On Ash Wednesday, we’re given crosses of ash on our foreheads as a reminder of this and are called to repent. This practice and even the word ‘sinner’ are perhaps jarring to modern sensibilities, seeming archaic and perhaps promoting a culture of shaming and unnecessary guilt. Yet, the concept is not about shaming others, but about looking into ourselves. And if the word ‘sinner’ is difficult to stomach, then there are ways to view the same concept that don’t require the dogmas and deadly sins of the Church. Think, instead, of sin simply as the negative effects that you have on the world. Whether that’s through your carbon footprint, through certain attitudes to other people or whatever else it is that comes to mind; it cannot be denied that there is something for everyone to consider.
Focussing on the negative can be difficult and should certainly not be done to the point of compromising one’s mental health. However, it is also a powerful thing to do and a way to accept responsibility for the fact that our actions have consequences that bear thinking about.
Whether that’s through your carbon footprint, through certain attitudes to other people or whatever else it is that comes to mind; it cannot be denied that there is something for everyone to consider
But it’s no surprise that corporations such as Tesco will promote Pancake Day, whilst staying silent as to what Pancake Day is supposed to be initiating. It’s no surprise either that whilst the joyful celebration of Christmas remains an enormous part of secular western culture, the humility and introspection of Lent is forgotten. As I wrote in an article this Christmas, that season has become an ‘annual binge’ propagated by the companies that benefit from a culture of excess consumption. Lent, on the other hand, could and should be a challenge to that unsustainable culture, and that is most probably why our commercial world has failed to embrace it.
But it’s not too late. The spirit of Lent can be adopted by anyone, and I urge you to consider it for yourself this season.