Lent is observed in almost all Christian traditions in various forms whereby some abstain from meat, dairy products and fish, some from meat and dairy products and some by not eating an entire meal or two the whole day. There are others who abstain from something they otherwise do the entire year round. This could include abstaining from drinking alcohol, not watching T.V., and not doing any leisurely activity. Abstinence from something or the other forms the back bone of lent this way. The aim of lent is to make the body starve from something which in some way or the other is perceived as a luxury to the self or which is unavailable to someone else.
Lent is also seen as a way to discipline the self and also as a way to gain something by denying oneself something or the other. Many Christian denominations also see lent as a time when we abstain to help others by providing food and other essentials through what is saved as a result of the abstinence. Lent also has not so visible, but never the less inherent meanings of slowing down the pace of life and using the time to meditate and take stock of one’s life and to define what it means to live.
Lent in the Orthodox Christian tradition
The Orthodox Christian tradition follows a strict regimen of following a fifty day lent which is a commemoration of the forty day fast of Jesus in the desert. The ten extra days are the days which include Sundays and other days when qurbana or worship is not followed up by fasting in the morning. In India many other Christian denominations along with the various Orthodox churches abstain from meat, fish and dairy products during this season of lent.
The Orthodox churches have prayers for at least three times a day and these include prostrating or kneeling and then getting up and continuing this pattern forty times for each prayer. The forty prostrations in the Syriac churches are divided into sets of ten with the worshipper saying ‘kurielaison’ (Lord have mercy) for the first ten, then ‘Moran Esrahemelain’ (Our Lord, show (do) mercy on us), followed by ‘Moran Husrahemelain’ (Our Lord, show compassion, and have mercy on us) and finally ‘Moran Aninurahemelain’ (Our Lord, answer (accept our prayers) and have mercy on us). The continuous kneeling and getting up patterns require mental as well as physical toughness which can be achieved only by a strict diet during lent. The constant repetition of exhortations to God require a proper breathing technique and are a strain to the knees, wind pipe, thigh muscles, arms and the knuckles of the hands. The strain on many parts of the body at the same time brings in the duality of pain along with abstinence while calling onto God to show mercy.
Bending our knees
But this is not the entire essence of lent. The theme of lent as bend, mend and lend rather suggests what lent should really be. The prayers during lent also suggest the same. Bending our knees in itself is not enough as they leave out the very essential mending of our hearts and the lending of our hands! Rather, bending of our knees should go along with the mending of our hearts and the lending of our hands. The reformed Christian tradition in India does ask us to not just express our spirituality through acts but live out this spirituality by reforming ourselves and being of help to others. On the other hand it could also be that in the haste to complete the act we forget the meaning of the act itself!
The act of bending is an outward expression of the inward piety and humility one should feel. Whenever we bend, we are going back to the roots of where we come from and where we belong, the ground or earth itself. Indian culture reflects this theme when the young bend to touch the feet of elders and teachers. The act of humility cannot be missed and brings us to the essence of lent. We are to humble ourselves just as Jesus humbled himself for us. The death on the cross is a reversal of power and its affiliations. Our life becomes meaningful when we humble ourselves before God and others. An Edessan woman tells St. Ephrem, the 4th century church father that he should look to the earth as it was from the earth that he was created. The wisdom of the woman opens Ephrem’s mind. Bending thus makes us see who we really are and keeps us in touch with reality. It initiates the process of thinking about and understanding ourselves.
Mending our hearts
The prayers during lent remind us that there is no use of observing lent if we do not change inside. No amount of abstinence from food and other things will help us in any way if we do not bring about a renewal inside us. Lent is thus a time to mend our hearts. We thus use this time of lent to mend our hearts and thereby our thoughts, our ways, our relationships and our actions. In this way lent performs the cleaning and changing of what is unjust to the ordinary people of God. Every individual thus comes under the responsibility of mending his/her heart so that God’s just plans are initiated in the world and continued for the benefit of all. ‘One for all and all for one’ sounds very much how lent should be. Each one strives for change just as all strive for the change of status of one. Christian denominations thus should experience the healing qualities of lent and how it works to bring people together instead of dividing people on the basis of different dispensations. The power of lent is beautifully reflected in this concept of one for all and all for one. Just as Jesus stayed hungry for the benefit of all of us, we continue that model and choose to remain hungry for the benefit of others. This single initiative turns into a collective movement whereby the needs of even a single person are collectively thought of, considered and managed by many.
Mending our hearts then calls for a change of what we usually call the fast life. Our lives are built around the irresponsible destruction of our resources, which indeed are a part of our existence. But due to various reasons we have lost the link with our roots literally and change the face of the earth for our profit and our wants. The prayers for lent clearly state that the body and the being or soul have to fast or observe lent equally. When the body abstains from food, the being or soul should abstain from wrongs and sins. A lent which only abstains from food is a waste and one should not just waste oneself like this. In these times many are looking towards Orthodox theology and the system of lent in the church to suggest that this is a way of life which can be followed to receive health benefits. But is lent just about health benefits and regulating our diet? If that was the case Jesus would just be our gym trainer! Whatever Christian denomination we belong to, we should remember that mending our minds means that we should change the way we look at and behave with others. We should change our total way of life. This involves questioning the very life that we are living. Lent becomes a time to slow down and take stock of our lives. Fasting does not mean power fasts and individual glory but fasting means slowing down during the great fast.
Lending our hands
Lending what we have acquired and saved and what we have set apart completes the great lent. Blessed are those who clothe the naked and blessed are those who satisfy the hungry from their own table says another prayer during the great lent. Those who give do not just give alms by opening their hands but lend their luxuries and their life. The sacrifice is finally made to count and this is not just giving a man/woman fish but also does not just involve in teaching them to fish. Rather what happens is that they are given rights to the same river or sea from which everyone else has been fishing for so long. The great lent lends much and much more. Churches try their best to educate people to set apart and share what they have saved with those who do not possess even the ordinary needs in life. This community commitment encourages community goodness apart from individual goodness. Churches even collect rice and other essentials and distribute it to those in need. Others lend their expertise, their learning and their positions to initiate larger projects which help the poor. Thus the lent becomes a time for people to do good and even becomes mandatory and more important than just abstinence from food.
Lent helps the church to remember that it has been fortunate in many ways and that there are others who are not so fortunate. The reasons for this are many and churches try to involve themselves in the various hunger pangs of the people who live in the surroundings of the church. Lent this way truly becomes a time when the church becomes a place where Jesus and his great fast is reflected. The fast that Jesus undergoes does not only help him to overcome the temptation of satan but goes on to help him to realise the actual infirmities that affected the society of his time. His life then helps us to realise that it is not enough to lend certain food items to the poor but to go on to fight the injustices that have led to the starvation and the deprivation that the poor in this country experience. It calls for fighting systemic evils that exist in our society and calls for the rooting out of these evils through our fast and lent.
Lent in this sense strengthens us to garner the energy to fight against corruption, caste disparity, gender disparity and other social evils. This is the temptation that we all have to fight against. By lending our hands we share our favourable destinies with those who have been experiencing skewed destinies because of the luxurious lives that we live. Our sacrifice thus is not a sacrifice but a just sharing of the resources we have all received freely and graciously from God.
Let this lent be a time when we bend, mend and lend for our brothers and sisters to live a life which goes along with the will of God. This is not a forced decision but a decision taken freely to ensure that we correct the wrongs we have done in our lives. May God be with us in this struggle to fulfil a meaningful lenten season. Let this be a lenten engagement which strives for the betterment of humanity, the world and its inhabitants. Let us accordingly bend, mend and lend. Amen.