The Roman emperor Decius was a pagan and a cruel persecutor of Christians. He fancied himself as a very cunning man. So he once summoned to his palace the elders of the Church and demanded of them: ‘Are you men of faith? Do you believe everything said in your Scriptures?’ ‘Yes, of course’, they replied. An evil grin came over Decius’ face. ‘Good. Do you see that mountain over there?’ he pointed through the window towards a big, blue mountain in the distance. ‘It says in your Gospel that if you have faith you would be able to move it. You have forty days to prepare. If you fail, I will exterminate you and all your people.’ What did the Christians do? They immediately called for a general fast of their congregations, accompanied by constant, daily prayers and almsgiving. It was a very strict fast, with minimal eating and drinking, lasting all day and night. The appointed day came, Decius and his soldiers stood around, swords drawn, ready to make mincemeat of the Christians. After prayer and meditation, the elders together commanded the mountain: ‘Move!’ And, lo and behold, the blue mountain did indeed shift and visibly move. The believers were saved. This salutary story nicely encapsulates the meaning of Lent. It is a season for spiritual warfare. A time of combat, of resistance to the devil and all his dastardly wiles and works.
Lent consists of forty days of exercises in self-control, self-denial and in mastery over the self. Indeed, Lent begins with the powerful rite of Ash Wednesday, when people come to church to have their heads sprinkled with ashes, symbolising their renewed humility and utter submission to God.
Lent essentially harks back to a mighty event at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. St Matthew’s Gospel narrates that after his baptism in the river Jordan by St John the Baptist, the Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness, ‘to be tempted by the devil’. After the Messiah fasted forty days and forty nights, the tremendous metaphysical contest took place. According to the Russian writer Dostoevsky the three temptations put by Satan to Jesus were of such spiritual depth and power that they are proof enough, if proof was needed, of the supernatural agencies at work in that awesome trial. Of course, the Messiah rejected the devil’s malicious seductions and soundly defeated him, praise be to God! The Gospels say that some Jews criticised the Messiah when they saw his disciples not fasting. He then compared his own person to that of a bridegroom at a wedding feast, at which fasting would be inappropriate.
There are also temptations of the mind. They are perhaps the most difficult to tame. Abstaining from food is relatively easy but how do you refrain from anger, envy and overweening pride?
The point was that the historical presence of Jesus, the Christ of God (God’s Messiah), was better celebrated by feasting than by fasting. The Church acknowledges that truth by excluding Sundays in Lent from fasting. That is so because Sunday is the Day of the Lord; hence rejoicing and cheerfulness should be the key notes, not gloom and penance. During the early centuries of the Christian era ascetical practices such as mortification and fasting were also required as training and preparation for baptism, the sacrament that makes one a member of the Church. Of course, the forty days period climaxed with the celebration of Easter, the joyful festival of the Resurrection. The penitential aspect of Lent is therefore not an end in itself but a prelude to the final, decisive victory of Christ over the forces of evil and death. Again, the emphasis is on the good news. Eventually penance and asceticism must give way to joy and bliss. There is perhaps a contrast with fasting in the Old Testament here, as fasting in the previous dispensation was connected with mourning over the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Fasting days outside Lent in the early church were usually Wednesdays and Fridays. The Lenten fast was very strict. Only one meal a day, taken towards evening, was allowed. Any kind of flesh-meat, fish, eggs and even milk were absolutely forbidden. The severity of later fasting varied according to different churches’ rules and customs. Also, members of religious orders, monks and nuns, have more obligations than ordinary laymen, because their vows entail more austere, extraordinary duties. Today the Ethiopian Coptic Church has the longest number of fasting days in Christendom: 250 a year, 180 of which are obligatory for all. Surely a sign of great holiness… Since the Reformation, Protestants have largely neglected ascetical practices and observances. It was a regrettable reaction caused by their break with the Catholic Church. Calvinists abandoned Lent altogether. Lutherans and Anglicans did not but they did not consider it especially meritorious.
Since the Anglo-Catholic revival in the 19th century, Lent self-denial and austerities have partially been revived in the Church of England.
In my own parishes I always made a point of preaching about self-discipline and almsgiving, also exhorting people to fast. Once we raised thousands of pounds for charity by collectively giving up dainties for Lent! Naturally, Lent fights against temptations of the flesh, such as gluttony, binge-drinking and fornication. There are also temptations of the mind. They are perhaps the most difficult to tame. Abstaining from food is relatively easy but how do you refrain from anger, envy and overweening pride? I myself knew a priest-monk who had a reputation for strict austerity and great simplicity of life – rare qualities for the often worldly and shallow clergy of my church. But once I noticed how envious he was of the success of a fellow priest. That temptation the holy man could not resist. I think I then saw Satan exulting by his side… Mind, the holy season of Lent is not about self-help and human effort. Man can do nothing by himself. God’s grace is essential for fighting the Evil One. Lent calls believers to be better but any spiritual deed is in vain if it is not prefaced by that beautiful, necessary phrase: ‘God willing’. Insh’Allah.