Lent, the time of fast and abstinence before Easter, is based on Christ’s time in the wilderness, described in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel with touching brevity: “He was in the desert with the wild beasts and angels ministered to him.” Angels and beasts. What could be better? Were the beasts really wild, or did the lions and jackals frolic round the Son of Man as if the Fall had never happened? And did the angels shoo away the beasts when Christ slept? Thinking figuratively, angels and beasts may represent too the bright and dark sides of our nature.
Christ was, of course, in the desert for 40 days, tempted by the Devil. And as medieval exegetes observed, 40 was a very special number. It was the number of years that the people of Israel sojourned in the desert. Also, as Augustine observed, the gospel of Matthew has 40 generations to the coming of Christ in his genealogy. “To this purpose, the Lord came down to us through forty generations, that we may ascend to him through forty days of fasting”. Then there were the 40 days after Easter when Christ stayed with his apostles.
In fact, from the first Sunday in Lent until Easter there are 42 days, and when you take out the six Sundays – for Sundays are always a feast of the Resurrection, never a fast day – you’re left with 36. So the Church authorities added four days to make up the number 40. And handily, the number four (for the gospels) multiplied by ten (for the commandments) comes to 40. In the early Church, the significance of numbers in scripture was taken very seriously. And indeed, numbers generally – four also stood for the seasons of the year, and the humours of the body (blood, phlegm, bile and choler) plus the elements of nature – earth, air, fire, water.
But the timing of the fast isn’t the same as Christ’s. He was tempted in the desert after his baptism, which in the Church’s year is celebrated around Christmas. So, why before Easter? The Golden Legend, the wonderful 13th-century compilation, quotes John Beleth, a 12th-century French liturgist, who gave four (that number again) reasons for the timing, the last two of which are notable: “A third reason is that the fires of lust usually burn more hotly in the spring, and to calm the body’s cravings, we have our longest fast in this season. And fourthly, immediately at the end of our fast, we are to receive the body of the Lord. As the Israelites, before they ate the paschal lamb, chastised themselves by eating wild bitter lettuce, so we ought to chastise ourselves by doing penance, in order to be worthy to eat the Lamb of life.”
We should note that until the modern period, people abstained from sex as well as from food during Lent. And the abstinence was collective: everyone knew what it involved. You gave up meat, but also dairy produce and eggs – which is why we use them up for pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. So, you went vegan for Lent, except you could eat fish. That’s one reason why monasteries had ponds, where they could keep carp for fast days. But there were days off the fast. For instance, you wouldn’t fast on the feast of the Annunciation, 25 March. Nor, as mentioned above, on Sunday.
There is a lot to be said for collective, generally understood fasting. Lenten abstinence was similar to abstinence from meat on Fridays; it was a rule for every Catholic which was unifying in its observance. You can see that culture in the Greek Orthodox Church, where fasting is still taken seriously. After the Second Vatican Council, this collective observance of the fast was abandoned in favour of “doing something positive” rather than boring old abstinence, with the emphasis on individual personal choice about what to do or what to give up.
As Eamon Duffy observes in the new edition of The Stripping of the Altars, this approach by the Second Vatican Council to the communal religious practice of fasting was not dissimilar to what happened at the Reformation. He was profoundly influenced by reading the anthropologist, Mary Douglas’s book, Natural Symbols, on this:
“Written against the background of … the transformation of the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Douglas’s book was an attack on what she saw as a disastrous and culturally and socially naïve abandonment of vital symbolic and ritual structures which made for orderly communal life, both secular and religious….In a brilliantly funny chapter, whose undertow of rage was barely concealed, she attacked the contemporary Catholic hierarchy for their surrender to the Zeitgeist in the abandonment of ritual practices like the Friday fast, whose importance in the maintenance of the corporate identity they had woefully failed to grasp…”
There’s nothing stopping us from returning to the old way of doing Lent and going vegan (which lots do as a way of life) and pescatarian for the duration. Whether abstinence from sex will also catch on is anyone’s guess.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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