Lenten practices rooted in ancient traditions
Second of two parts on the basics of Lent
Forty days. No meat. The color purple. Now that we are into the season of Lent, we might be wondering why we do what we do during this season of preparing ourselves for Easter. Following up on last week’s information, here is more background on some of our Lenten practices:
Fasting dates back before Jesus’ time, to Old Testament times. For ancient Hebrews, fasting was a sign of penance and humility before God.
It was the same for early Christians, but they also fasted in solidarity with Jesus, who had fasted for 40 days before beginning his public ministry. Jesus had gone out into the desert to be alone in God’s presence. By fasting, Christians believe they draw closer to God who provides us “with every good thing.”
Stations of the Cross
The Way of the Cross, better known as the Stations of the Cross, is one of the oldest Catholic devotions.
Praying the stations appears to have arisen out of the practice of early Christians retracing the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrow) in Jerusalem, the path Jesus walked to his crucifixion. We know that pilgrims visited Calvary and the site of Christ’s tomb from the earliest days. The popularly accepted site of the tomb was where the Emperor Constantine erected the first Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the early fourth century.
As Christianity spread across Europe, most people could not travel to Jerusalem and the practice gradually arose of erecting local representations of the Via Dolorosa. This became more popular after the Crusaders began returning from journeys in the Holy Land in the 11th century. When Jerusalem fell to the Turks in the 12th century, travel to the Holy Land became even more rare and devotional stations became more common.
The Franciscans, who received custody of Jerusalem’s Holy Places for Latin-rite Catholics in 1335, also began to place stations in Franciscan churches across Europe. St. Leonard Casanova erected more than 500 of them in Italy from 1731 to 1751.
No meat on Fridays
Church law requires Catholics over the age of 14 to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and the Fridays of Lent. In fact, canon law (last revised in 1983) says Catholics are to abstain from meat on all Fridays (can. 1253). But this code of law also allows local bishops’ conferences to determine how this is practiced. So in the U.S., we don’t abstain on all Fridays.
Early Christians first fasted on Fridays because the Lord died on Friday. The second century teaching, the Didache, (also known as the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) called upon Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. In 866, Pope Nicholas I made the Friday abstinence from meat a universal rule of the church. By the 12th century, abstinence and fasting for penance were common Lenten practices.
Not just meat was forbidden. For centuries, any animal byproduct fell under the Lenten ban. This included lard, butter, cheese and eggs. This is where the tradition of Fat Tuesday — Mardi Gras — began. Everyone had to eat all the meat and animal-based foods — fats — before Lent began on Ash Wednesday.
Often associated with Mardi Gras is “carnival,” which we know as a season of revelry. However, “carnival” is really a Lenten term that comes from two Latin words — “carne lavere” — or “taking away the flesh,” as in abstaining from meat.
A common sight at Lent are the paper Rice Bowls, which Catholic Relief Services uses to give to the poor. Three-quarters of what is donated goes to CRS and 25 percent is kept for local distribution to the poor.
Lent gives special emphasis to the Christian call to alms giving, something we really should remember all year. As followers of Christ, we cannot ignore the poor. However, Christians are not alone in having a special time to remind us to care for others.
The Qu’ran requires Muslims to give zakat, a form of tax upon income, each year as a means of purification and for the good of others. It is not primarily viewed as charity, but as a requirement of a faithful person. Zakat is calculated prior to the holy month of Ramadan and Muslims are required to give 2.5 percent of their income, above the amount needed to live on.
Devout Jews also give 10 to 20 percent of their earnings in the days of penance preceding the new year feast of Rosh Hashanah. The Hebrew word is tzedakah. It does not mean “charity,” but derives from a phrase that translates as “justice” or “what’s fair.”
Tzedakah and zakat both trace back to Abraham, whom all three major religions honor. In Genesis 14, we read of Abraham giving Melchizedek, priest of God the Most High, “a tenth of everything” from the plunder gained after Abraham had defeated a group of four kings in battle.
However, giving to the poor isn’t really about helping the less fortunate, but rather about remembering that anything we have doesn’t really belong to us — because everything ultimately belongs to God, the creator. When we forget that, we forget who we really are: God’s children.
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon; The New Question Box: Catholic Life in the New Century; The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary; New Dictionary of the Liturgy; Dictionary of Catholic Devotions; Modern Catholic Dictionary; The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship; Catholic Relief Services at www.crs.org; www.aish.com; www.JustTzedakah.org; www.jewish.com; Judaism for Beginners.