This has been an unusual year in many ways, and this year’s Lenten season has been marked by two things for me – coronavirus, and dieting.
Ash Wednesday, when Lent starts, fell on February 26th this year, around the time when the virus had really rolled up its sleeves and got to work. So as Easter got closer the precautions and measures taken for containment and prevention got stricter, with lockdown over here arriving just over halfway through Lent and having certain restrictions added afterwards, like minimum queueing distances outside supermarkets and food shops, and limited numbers of people being allowed inside. It is the most surreal lead-up to Easter that I would have thought possible had you asked me to come up with ideas.
This was also one of the few years when I celebrated Ash Wednesday. I’ve never really bothered with Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Day, as I’m not really a fan of English-style pancakes, and Methodism doesn’t make a huge deal out of Ash Wednesday services either – my church didn’t always hold them for starters, and even when they were on the calendar attendance wasn’t expected, unlike Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. But as I was working next door to Westminster Abbey at the time I decided to attend their Ash Wednesday service with imposition of ashes. It started about 45 minutes after I came out of work, but I killed time in between by walking the long way round – our site entrance was up near the east end of the Abbey, and to get in for the service you had to use the west door – so I walked around to the south where there are a lot of buildings and you have to take side streets and walk through Dean’s Court before reaching the west end. While it costs to get into the Abbey, no charge is made for those wishing to enter for private prayer or to attend services, and I have yet to find an institution or restaurant that has denied me entrance because I’ve turned up with a slightly dusty rucksack and wearing steels and hi-vis trousers. The service was lovely, partly because the Abbey is such a marvellous building to start with, but also because the sermon was given by a cleric who actually knew how to do public speaking with a microphone and how to keep his audience engaged. The topic was as you’d expect – the upcoming season of Lent and how we as Christians in the 21st century should approach it. But one part stuck in my memory – he recited a poem by D. H. Lawrence, Lizard, and emphasised the last line: ‘If men were as much men as lizards are lizards they’d be worth looking at’. The idea being that lizards match up to expectations of lizardness, but that humanity often falls short of what it should be – even if you take out the Christian ideal of what humanity should live up to, you’ve still got huge social inequality in the world, a disregard of the planet we live on and how our actions impact the enjoyment of it for other people, from littering to the global climate crisis, and so on. The closing remarks of the sermon were that if we as humans, during this time of preparation before Easter and afterwards, tried to be as human as a lizard is a lizard, we too might be worth looking at by the end of it.
‘Giving things up for Lent’ is a common thing to do, even among non-Christians. There are, after all, plenty of atheists and people of other faiths who celebrate Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Day and Easter by eating pancakes and chocolate eggs, in the same way that people celebrate a secular Christmas. It’s easy to see why – in Europe and a lot of the places that the Europeans colonised, such as the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, Christianity of one form or another has been the religion professed by the majority of the population for over a century if not longer. And even in today’s less religious/more secular world, where we no longer have a homogeneity of religion among the ruling classes (as in Victorian England for example) and where religion is mostly divorced from governmental policy (except in the US, which has issues…), Christianity is still a major cultural force. This is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, but it is certainly a thing – here in the UK we have Easter and Christmas as national holidays, Scotland and Ireland have their national patron saint’s days’ off, Sundays are a day off for the majority of the working population, and so on. So even if people are no longer religious they may still wish to let their children experience the joys of Christmas trees and eating loads of pancakes, in the same way that they enjoyed doing so when they were young and before the religious significance or origin of their actions had really sunk in. Which is, I think, how we arrived at the secular celebrations of these events. Which in the past 100+ years have been Christian, whatever Christianity may have borrowed from folklore, Paganism, and local custom originally. In the same way that couples who never attend church will still want a church wedding, although that trend has dropped off recently as more hotels and suchlike these days are licensed to perform marriages. Part of it may have been due to aesthetics, but there is also the feeling of one should get married in church because that’s what people do – or at least for people around my generation and the ones between mine and my parents’ generations, that’s what previous generations did and it’s kind of expected. And a lot of town hall registry offices were fairly utilitarian for quite a while in terms of both setting and wedding service.
I’ve got no issue with these secular celebrations of liturgical events, for pretty much the same reason I don’t try and convert people or preach that mine is the only right way to live/worship/believe. Although I’m very glad that there are so many more attractive places where weddings can be held these days, including some deconsecrated churches (if you really want that aesthetic in your wedding photos). It always seemed a bit off to me to have a couple getting married in church when they hadn’t attended services anywhere since they were children (if then) and had no intention of attending afterwards either. They may well have gone to the meetings with the minister that a lot of churches hold for couples wishing to be married, but that’s about it. It just seems kind of pointless and mildly insulting to be married ‘in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation’ when that’s all the Christianity you’re ever going to do. I might as well get married in a gurdwara by that logic. It’s different if one of the partners is religious and the other not, but there were several weddings held at my church when I was growing up for couples where neither of them professed any form of Christianity, which irked me.
Anyway, back on topic – cultural tendency to give things up for Lent, even if not Christian or particularly devout. The origin of this custom is the fact that Lent used to be a time of fasting, where no flesh, dairy produce, or eggs were to be consumed for the forty days leading up to Easter. This parallels the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, although the mediaeval church being what it was, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Saturday inclusive is actually 46 days (we get Sundays off), and ‘fish’, which was the only animal product generally able to be consumed, covered beavers and sometimes ducks as well. Because they could swim. And in European seasonal terms, having a ban on milk, eggs, and animals such as sheep, chickens, and cows made sense in early spring. After all, this is the period when a lot of these animals are mating, pregnant, and lactating to feed the next generation, upon which farmers’ livelihoods depended, and winter stores of all the above would have been depleted, or nearly so.
These days, with ‘seasonal’ food turning into more of a buying choice than a reflection of availability in shops, most people choose to give up something instead of fasting, although fasting (to varying degrees) still happens depending on denominational affiliation and personal piety. Most people give up luxuries, with smoking, chocolate, and alcohol being among the most common. I’ve given up chocolate three times now I think, and the fact that I’ve managed it at all has amazed my friends as I am renowned for being a massive chocoholic and having a very sweet tooth. The first time was probably one of the stupidest years I could have chosen though, as I was writing up my undergrad dissertation at the time. But while I did have the occasional Sunday off both that year and the next time I decided to do so (either 2018 or 2019 I can’t remember which), I did cheat somewhat – I’d given up chocolate after all, but vanilla fudge, sweets, cakes with buttercream and cream cheese icing, those I could still eat, no problem! So this year I chose to give up chocolate and all sweet stuff – cake, ice cream, sweets, the lot. And aside from three days off (baking for a friend’s hen do, the day of the hen do, and today – Good Friday – because I’m not not having hot cross buns), I’ve not had any of the above since February. Ok, not quite true – I was still having a two-finger Kitkat in my lunchbox when I was at work, but I knew there was no way I would be able to do a full day on site without some form of confectionery. On the plus side I’ve also lost 6lb in weight, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve really been craving chocolate and cookies, and I can’t wait until Sunday when I can stuff my face full of chocolate Easter egg. And probably put all that weight back on…
When I bother with Lent, which hasn’t been often in my thirty-years-and-change of life, I’ll usually give something up, but I will also try and follow the advice that was mentioned years ago at some sort of church do, of ‘taking up’ something as well as giving something up. Or instead of, if you were that way inclined. Last time I tried to do that, several years ago, I started to slip out of the habit around halfway through, and by 3/4 of the way through Lent I’d stopped completely. This year I’ve tried again, with the aim of using my Anglican rosary once every day. I’ve actually managed it as well, even on days where I was doing it just before going to sleep and really had to concentrate so as not to nod off partway through.
The prayers given on the Wikipedia page are examples only, and I use different ones, as while the Wikipedia ones are more commonly used by many, there are no set prayers for this style of prayer beads. My set was bought for me by one of my friends at university, although I picked out which beads I wanted and the style of cross. The cross is a Celtic-inspired one made of pewter, and the chain links were silver-plated brass, although the silver has pretty much all worn off now through use – I’ve had them since 2005 after all. The septade/week beads are 6mm black-stained wood, and the invitatory and cruciform beads are 8mm onyx.