For many, the 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday are not vigorously observed
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Most religions include periods set aside for fasting, abstinence, discipline, penitence, meditation and prayer. But for many modern Anglicans, the 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday are not rigorously observed. And for the majority, the props of medieval Lenten piety-sackcloth and ashes, the cat-o’-nine-tails, black bread and water-have long since receded into the rearview mirror.
Thinking back to my childhood, Lent was a period honoured more in the breach than the observance. My principal recollection is of the little pyramidal mite boxes into which we put our pennies and nickels for Sunday school. The pyramids were decorated with blue or green scenes of the life of the Jews during the Egyptian captivity-Moses in the rushes, for example. They had very small coin slots, just large enough to put the nickels in but not large enough to take them out. You wanted to avoid the embarrassment of handing in your Lenten pyramid on Palm Sunday with a torn slot-concrete proof that you had delved into your offering.
Yet for many contemporary Anglicans, Lent is alive and well in their personal annual calendars. And unlike Christmas and Easter, Lent has the distinction of being purely religious and not also celebrated as a festive holiday by Christians and non-Christians alike.
One Lenten observer is Stella Demery, a lay reader in the rural parish of MacDowall near Prince Albert, Sask. For her, Lent is a time of intense meditation and Christian education. “I reflect on my relationship with the Lord more intently than at other times of the year, and I usually undertake a special study,” says the widow of the late Rev. Jack Demery. Last year, for example, she spent the 40 days studying the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount and doing extra reading and prayer.
Raised in the Greek Catholic Church where fasting is common, Demery is no stranger to this practice. “I don’t fast completely, but Friday is always a very light food day during Lent and I spend more time in meditation,” she says. While Demery usually enjoys lingering over an evening meal she has prepared, on Lenten Fridays she sacrifices this pleasure for something simple, such as a slice of bread.
For Demery, Lent is also a solemn time when she leaves the fast lane of social activity. “We need to remember that the Lord spent 40 days in the wilderness. As his followers and disciples, we must try to get to that place and focus on our relationship with him.”
Newcomer Cheta Agulefo arrived in Canada with his family last August from a community in Nigeria where Christians live side by side with Muslims. “The Muslim practice of fasting daily during Ramadan has definitely influenced Christians,” admits Agulefo, who worships at the Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto. During Lent, he fasts every day from 6 a.m. until noon or 3 p.m. “The difference is that for Muslims fasting is mandatory, whereas for Christians it is a voluntary act.”
Another St. James parishioner, Elizabeth Lang, used to give up meat for fish during Lent, but stopped when she realized that fish was more of a luxury in contemporary Canada than steak. “Now I attend the annual Lenten lecture series and enjoy the beautiful simpler music of the season, such as plainchant,” she says.
Like Saskatchewan’s Demery, Jonathan Lofft views Lent as a time to turn down the dimmer switch on social activities and become more meditative and abstemious. “I don’t drink alcohol at home or go out drinking, although I may have a drink if offered one at a specific gathering,” says the first-year theology student at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College.”
In St. John’s, 85-year-old Denise Rees most definitely observes Lent, and she thinks the church should make more of it. The first woman in Newfoundland to attend synod back in the early 1960s, Rees adds an evening mid-week service with a eucharist (“if there is one”) to her regular Sunday attendance at St. Mary the Virgin church. She also intensifies her normal Christian study and reading, using the Bible fellowship reading guidelines of the Augsburg Fortress Press. “I give up drinking liquor as well,” she says. “My goal is to get closer to our Lord and to the sacrifice he has made at such great cost to himself, and to God’s great cost. I know he is there.”
Ten-year-old Thomas Haslam, a resident of Springfield, P.E.I., and the organist at St. Elizabeth’s Anglican Church, considers Lent a time for getting prepared. “The 40 days of Lent remind me of the 40 days Jesus spent getting ready for his final act on earth. So I try to be prepared for playing the organ and for any other jobs I have to do. I read the Bible, and I think of Lent as a rebirthing time,” says Thomas, who is home-schooled.
For Canon John Hill, a retired priest in Toronto, Lent is a prodromal period of confession, admission and rededication leading up to the crucifixion. “If you think of the contrast between the season after Epiphany and the season of Lent, you see that in the first, we follow Jesus on his mission of introducing his world to the Kingdom of God, teaching people the way of freedom and peace,” he says. “In the second, we watch him facing up to the fact that people are threatened by what he is doing and are turning against him, determined to preserve the order that he is challenging.”
As we all know, the outcome of this clash is predetermined. “Jesus knows where this will end, and of course so do we; but what we need to learn during Lent is how we are complicit in the resistance. So, like the first disciples, we follow him up to Jerusalem, afraid of where this is taking us, trying to believe that we can find a compromise between Jesus’ demanding vision and the ways to which we are accustomed. In the end, he dies, and unless we turn away, we die too-that is, our life that was invested in the ways of this world stands condemned by its complicity in the world’s rejection of him.”
So in Hill’s interpretation, the 40 days of Lent are a time of relearning “to take up the cross and follow Christ by letting him expose in us our attachment to a culture that is in rebellion against the Kingdom of God.” Ω