Lent's little-known, secular roots

March 03, 1998|By Joseph Gallagher

LORD, who threw out these 40 days?

Question: Who was taller, David or Goliath? Answer: David who?

This exchange was reported by a Gallup Poll investigating the religious knowledge of a group of Americans. If this answer is typical, a brief refresher course on Lent and Easter may be timely and appreciated.

Why "Lent"? This is basically a nonreligious calendar word, and originally referred to the time of the year when the daylight hours were noticeably longer, or "LENgThening."

Why "Easter"? This is a sky word referring to the East (as does "easterly winds"). For the Anglo-Saxons, it became the name of the dawn goddess, Oestre. Her holiday was the vernal equinox, around March 21.

Days were now equal to nights, and "the east" would daily seem to grow more powerful. The memorial of Christ's resurrection and victory over death's darkness fittingly occurs around this time of year.

Why this time of year? Because Christ's crucifixion took place at the time of the Jewish Passover ("Pesach," whence Paschal). In the Jewish lunar calendar, the Passover festival takes place 14 days after the new moon, which starts the spring month of Nisan -- in other words, at the time of a full moon.

The Passover celebrated the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt -- after the Angel of Death "passed over" the Hebrew homes and so afflicted the Egyptians that the Pharaoh agreed to "let my people go."

As a sign to the angel, the Hebrews were instructed to smear their doorways with the blood of the lamb they had slain and eaten the evening before.

The Last Supper of Jesus was the memorial celebration of this very "Paschal" meal. But for Christians, Jesus himself was the Lamb of God whose blood had saved them. (In contrast to our English usage, the word Easter in French, Italian and Spanish comes from Passover/Paschal.)

Why do Christians (Eastern and Western churches) celebrate Easter on different days of the same year? In some cases, because of variations in the calendars used. The exact date for celebrating Easter was long controversial in the church. Some argued that the feast should be observed on the same day as Passover; others, on the following Sunday.

In the Western church, this arrangement now obtains: Easter falls on the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the spring equinox. That date could be as early as March 21 -- if the equinox falls on a March 20 that is a Saturday and has a full moon that very night.

But suppose a full moon came the night before? You'd have to wait for another complete moon cycle of 29 1/2 days. If that next full moon rose on a Monday, you'd have to wait six additional days for Sunday. In that case, Easter would be April 25. So the date can vary more than a month. The decisive factor is the Paschal full moon.

Why 40 days of Lent? In the Bible, 40 is a convenient round number -- 40 years is the appropriate time span of a generation. The Hebrews wandered for 40 years in the desert. Perhaps in imitation of that period, Jesus prefaced his public ministry with a 40-day fast in the desert. Eventually, that fast became the model for Christians preparing themselves for Easter.

At first, though, the fast was observed chiefly by converts a few days before their Easter baptism. At the time of the First Ecumenical Council (A.D. 325), a 40-day observance was required. Today, if you count the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, you'll find more than 40. That's because Sundays, being little Easters, were inappropriate for fasting. (Amazingly, the church in Rome did not celebrate a special Easter Sunday until about A.D. 170.)

Through the centuries, the rules for observing Lent have varied considerably. The main idea is to identify with the sufferings of Christ (in himself and in others) by imitating more programmatically his self-discipline, his compassion and his prayerfulness. To use the "lengthening" motif, Lent should prompt Christians to lengthen their helping hand, their moments of meditation and the time between bodily satisfactions.

An old Lenten hymn begins with the words: "Lord, who throughout these 40 days " In recent decades, there has been a slackening of Lenten observance among Roman Catholics and other Christians. Whence the humorous twist, "Lord, who threw out these 40 days?"

But other Lents remain in full force. Recently, I met an old friend who is going blind. He wondered what he should "give up" for Lent. The hardest thing to give up is one's free choice. Life has imposed on my friend an unchosen Lent, as it does on all of us at one time or another.

To say prayerfully, "Not my will but thine be done," is about as Lenten and Christlike as anyone can get at any time of year or of life.

The Rev. Joseph Gallagher is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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