Saturday, 16 April 2011

Do Christians really understand what the whole "Lent" thing is about?

I thought I'd speak about this subject seeing we're coming to the end of Lent and people are starting to feel hungry for the things they've given up for this 40-day period.

So I thought I'd write about the whole run-up to and celebration of Easter. And because I wanted to write something about it, I've asked the people who adhere to the practices "what is it all about?" I was surprised to find that very few Christians knew why they did it, they simply replied, "it's just something we do." But eventually I found some ardent Christians who were able to enlighten me, and I thought I'd share what I found out.

It starts with Pancake or Shrove Tuesday. This marks the beginning of Lent and is celebrated by the eating of pancakes. Why? Because it is symbolically also the beginning of Passover when the Jews threw out all their leaven and leavened bread and, as we know, for a period before the actual Passover feast, Jewish people eat matzos, but Anglicans (and Catholics) eat pancakes. This is mere symbolism.

Then for the next forty days they give up something they like. In some cases it's desserts, others give up smoking, drinking, going to the cinema, anything that they will miss. You're not allowed to give up foods you don't enjoy; you can't get away with cheating. When you make the vow of not eating cakes, or smoking for forty days, the priest puts an ash cross on your head (on the day after pancake Tuesday) called Ash Wednesday. The ash is made from the palm cross you made the previous year, and symbolises a renewal of your faith.

Then for the next forty days you lead an exemplary life while you wait for Good Friday when you celebrate the crucifixion. So what is the forty days all about? It symbolises the forty days that Jesus fasted in the desert.

The Sunday before Good Friday,  is Palm Sunday, a very holy day in the calendar. It symbolises the entry by Jesus into Jerusalem for his crucifixion with people waving palm leaves at him. Crosses are made from the palm leaves and kept until the following year's Ash Wednesday.

Good Friday is the holiest of holy days in the Christian calendar. It marks the Friday of Jesus' crucifixion.  They survive through Saturday and then on Sunday morning, just before they start hunting for Easter eggs in a lovely pagan Spring festival, they go back to using the thing they gave up for Lent.

Then everything is back to normal again. They're allowed to enjoy everything they like until they start the process all over again.

In this celebration of a holy period, we have a recognition of a Jewish practice -- the eating of unleavened bread, the emulation of another mid-Eastern practice --fasting, and the fun pagan festival of welcoming the Spring with Easter eggs. They say it marks a rebirth and Jesus having risen from the dead.

Having learned this, I thought I'd share it with my readers who may be interested to know what the whole Easter story is all about.

In South Africa, because Easter Sunday is a holiday, and we get Monday off whenever a holiday falls on a Sunday, we have a long weekend. Far from hanging around in churches praying and waiting to start eating desserts again, most of my compatriots head for the beaches, for the last suntan before winter. They also bring their kids' Easter eggs with them which they hide in the gardens around their holiday venue before heading off back to the interior and school again. It also marks a period of extreme carnage on our roads.

If you are travelling on the roads over the long weekend, please drive carefully.