"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 21, 2013

What Did You Give Up For Lent?

Fasting during Lent was always fun as a kid because I always gave up something that didn’t mean anything, like candy, and felt holy every time I went in to Jimmy’s Smoke Shop to ogle girly magazines and saw that his neatly-arranged racks of Three Musketeers, Snickers, and Mars bars hadn’t been touched. All my friends, it seemed, kept on eating pies and cakes to their heart’s content, and stuffed crumbly, gooey slices into their pockets in case they got hungry.  “What did you give up for Lent?” was part of recess, but the answers were always predictable – candy and TV usually.  Neither one was particularly penitential. I grew up in the Fifties when TV wasn’t much at all, when there were a lot of test patterns, scratchy black and white movies, and boring programs; so giving up TV was not a problem.

Giving up candy had an upside – it gave you license to gorge yourself on Easter.  My parents felt sorry for me and wanted to reward my piety, so they let me eat as many chocolate bunnies as I wanted.  My sister and I had our own bunnies.  I loved to first eat the heads off all of them, then arrange them like brown Ichabod Cranes on my bureau, returning to amputate legs and paws until all that was left was the body, gnawed away at the edges. My sister was more genteel, nibbling the toes and fingers, taking little bites up the arms and legs, trying to keep Buns intact for as long as possible.

My parents always bought us dyed Easter chicks and the Easter Bunny delivered them to our basement every year.  My sister and I loved the cuddly little things and liked to hear them peep, peck, and watch them squirt on our mother’s clean linoleum floor.  Only later did I inquire about what happened to the chicks once Easter was over.  Joe Geraci, the butcher, took them back, ground them up and, in a nice cannibalistic twist, fed them to the chickens he was raising for sale.

Easter itself was fun.  Not only was there all the chocolate bunnies and jelly beans, but my mother cooked a special meal and my father was on his best behavior.  He only went to communion once a year, at Easter, and we all knew that his state of grace wouldn’t last past two o’clock when he would start in on us, committing the sins of anger, pride, blasphemy, and foul language; so we enjoyed the ceasefire while it lasted.

I never thought much on the meaning of Lent.  I knew that it started with ashes on the forehead and ended with chocolate bunnies, ham, Easter hats, and church; but other than giving up TV or candy, it was not much at all.

Kristina Chew writing in The Guardian (3.21.13) remarks about how fasting during Lent has been co-opted by the fit and the super-moms who want to improve diet and nutrition, totally missing the point.  Chew suggests that fasting only had meaning if the food abstained were given as alms to the poor:

Early Christian theologians emphasized that fasting in Lent must be connected to something else, namely, almsgiving: the food that you are giving up should be given away to someone else. Unless accompanied by acts of charity, fasting is "avaricious," according to St Augustine.

This may be one interpretation, but a quick review of the literature shows that for most theologians fasting and abstinence were meant to be acts of penance – “a voluntary self-punishment as an outward expression for having done wrong”. Such penitence was meant as a preparation for receiving The Risen Christ.  In other words, you cleansed your soul through abstinence – as Jesus himself did as he wandered through the Judean desert. 

The Biblical story goes that Jesus fasted to prepare himself for the task that His Father had sent him to Earth for; and while he was in the desert, the Devil tempted him many times, and after 40 days and 40 nights of refusal, the angels came and feted him with sweet cakes.

So Lenten fasting has a lot to do with resisting temptation.  Not only are you doing penance and preparing yourself for the awakening of Easter, you are resisting temptation. In refusing the Snickers at Jimmy’s you were learning a lifelong lesson of discipline and spiritual enlightenment.

Now, giving up candy or TV is one thing, but some people take Lent seriously.  The Spanish have always had a twisted, sadistic bent.  It is not a coincidence that the Spanish Inquisition was the origin of some of the most hideous machines of torture ever devised.  In former Spanish colonies like Mexico and the Philippines, crucifixes are not the gentle affairs that they are in America showing a graceful young man with eyes turned towards heaven, but gruesome depictions of the bloody, gashed, and tortured Christ.  The gash in his side is shown as large, open, suppurating, and bleeding.  Blood from the crown of thorns runs into his eyes.  His face is grey and drawn, showing the effects of the gradual suffocation which is killing him.  This is what suffering is, New World Catholics proclaim.  He died for your sins, now get on your bloody knees and say you are sorry for offending him.

The Spanish used to have the best Lenten processions, lots of flagellation, blood, and physical pain; but now that they are members of the EU and prefer to avoid the sniggering glances of the Germans, they have stopped; but the tradition lives on in the Philippines, a really Catholic country:


So, we have a lot to choose from during Lent. We can focus on penitence, a lot like the Jews and their Day of Atonement.  We can focus on resisting temptation, like Christ did in the desert.  We can prepare ourselves for the Resurrection, and eliminate the noise of our mundane lives through prayer and reflection – a bit like Ramadan.  At the very least we might think about the wild ride our lives have been – loves, adventures, misfortunes, missed opportunities, epiphanies, depressions, tangled affairs, wayward children, and great food – and how they all seem less important than they once seemed.

However, if you are a traditionalist and prefer to stick with the straightforward and easy way to Easter, keep in mind the thoughts of St. Thomas Aquinas when you are deciding what to give up:

During the early Middle Ages, meat, eggs and dairy products were generally forbidden. Thomas Aquinas argued that "they afford greater pleasure as food [than fish], and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust."[

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