A Beginner’s Guide to Lent

Note: I know Lent started a week ago. But this is a Beginner’s Guide to Lent, not a Guide to the Beginning of Lent. Timeliness isn’t always a concern at NPI.

I grew up in a Roman Catholic neighborhood, going to Roman Catholic schools, and attending Roman Catholic Mass every Sunday. So the idea of Lent is fairly simple and straightforward to me.

But every once in a while, someone like Josh—who you may have been able to infer did not grow up in a Roman Catholic neighborhood, go to Roman Catholic school, and attend Roman Catholic Mass every Sunday—reminds me that certain things we Catholics do—like “put that cross on our heads” (his words, not mine)—strike others as awfully strange.

Lent, of course, starts on Ash Wednesday, which is not, contrary to popular belief, a holy day of obligation. Still, any good Catholic will attend a short prayer service, which typically entails a reading, a Gospel, a brief sermon, and the distribution of ashes. The ashes are meant to remind us that we were made from dust and to dust we shall return. As a result, my high school’s prayer service always concluded by playing the sacred recording, “Dust in the Wind,” by Kansas.

Lent symbolically lasts 40 days in order to reenact the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before commencing his ministry. The one problem with this is that there are, in fact, 46 days between Lent’s start on Ash Wednesday and its end on Holy Saturday. To compensate for this, Sundays do not count. Instead, they are considered “mini-Easters” by the Church. “Mini-Easters” do not in any way stand out from normal Sundays. It’s a pretty big cop-out.*

*Some people consider Lent to be 43 days, culminating on Holy Thursday before the Triduum (Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday). While this also makes sense (I mean, we do designate those days the Triduum), it doesn’t work as well mathematically because you’d have to go with a “Sundays count as half-a-day” logic, which is even worse than them not counting at all. Furthermore, you don’t want to free up people from their Lenten sacrifice on Good Friday, which is only the second-holiest day of the year.

The question Catholics are most pestered with during Lent is “What are you giving up?” The tradition of “giving something up” for Lent derives from Jesus’ fasting and his resisting Satan’s temptations while in the desert. It’s worth noting that Satan didn’t really bring his A-game to the desert.* He offers Jesus bread, the chance to jump off a cliff and be caught, and all the kingdoms of the earth so long as he worshipped the devil. I’m not that stuck-up, but come on, Satan: This isn’t Adrian Leverkühn or Faust you’re dealing with. You’ve got to up the ante just a little.**

*Neither did the Gospel writers. John doesn’t mention it, and Mark just says Jesus was “tempted by Satan…and the angels ministered to him.” Matthew and Luke both feel compelled to explicitly mention that, after 40 days of complete fasting, Jesus was pretty hungry.

**Of course, the Bible’s take on Satan is, in some ways, biased.

And so Catholics attempt to mimic Jesus’ pre-ministry sacrifices (his end-of-ministry one being a bit beyond our reach) during Lent by giving up something tempting, like coffee or soda. Perhaps the most in-depth look at what it means to sacrifice something during Lent is the 2002 Josh Hartnett film, 40 Days and 40 Nights, in which the main character gives up sex for Lent, right before he meets the girl of his dreams (his definition of “sex” included masturbation and, somewhat ludicrously, kissing). Hilarity ensues. Having never actually seen the film, I imagine they don’t allow the major loophole that many Catholics (and by this, I mean my mom’s family) allow. Since Sundays don’t count toward the whole 40 days, you can give in to your temptation on Sunday and have coffee, soda, or in Josh Hartnett’s character’s case, sex, while still maintaining your “sacrifice.” This is a bigger cop-out than Sundays not counting in the first place.

Catholics do have another option during Lent, however. Instead of giving up something bad, we can try to do something good. This can be doing community service, attending Stations of the Cross (held on Friday nights in most Churches), or reading the Bible. This last one works especially well because you can do it year after year before re-reading anything. A chapter a night during Lent means you can finish the Gospels (89 chapters) in just two years (92 days). You’ll take down the New Testament sometime during your sixth Lent of reading, and close the entire Bible (assuming you start with the New, or Better, Testament) in a scant 29 years.

Last but not least, we have what Josh referred to as the “not eating meat thing.” On Ash Wednesday and Fridays throughout Lent, we abstain from eating meat while also quasi-fasting. Now this is fasting in the loosest sense possible: We’re allowed two small meals and one big one, with no snacks in-between. Yeah, Fridays are HARD.

The abstention from meat does create some social awkwardness every once in a while, like if we go to a restaurant and order something that has meat only to remember it’s Friday and that we can’t eat it and we have to either track down the waiter/ress to place a supplementary order or pretend we’re sick and that’s why we’re not eating.*

*I am not speaking from personal experience at all.

So while you enjoy your coffee, soda, sex, and Friday meat for the next several weeks, try to remember the sacrifices your Catholic friends are making. Except if it’s Sunday.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on February 24, 2010 at 10:31 PM

    Only you would find “all the kingdoms of earth” to not be a sufficient temptation. What should Satan have offered? The complete Arrested Development Box Set?

    Reply

  2. But it was all the kingdoms with the qualification that Jesus worship Satan; it’s essentially the same offer JC had from his Pop.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Josh on February 24, 2010 at 11:26 PM

    With regards to your accidental ordering of meat dilemma, another alternative would just be to pretend, after long last, that you reached the moral conclusion (RIGHT after you ordered) that vegetarianism is the only morally legitimate eating philosophy. This played a role in me getting a “Vegetarian card” mid-year at a certain higher educational institution.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Douglas on February 25, 2010 at 12:44 AM

    Some Protestants also observe Lent (like anyone wants to hear about what Protestants do). But not the meat part, because come on.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Douglas on February 25, 2010 at 12:58 AM

    Just so no one thinks I’m trying to steal credit for anything, here’s the reference from Martin Luther on that last part, from his 95 Theses.

    “LXXXIX. Omnia sunt bona. Sed non carni, quoniam venite.”
    “No. 89 Everything’s cool. But not the meat part, because come on.”

    Reply

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