Lent. The Christian equivalent of Ramadan, when we’re all supposed to give something up, like beer, in recognition of the forty days Jesus allegedly spent in a decidedly beer-free wilderness and the opening curtain before Easter, or Eostre, to give it its old pagan name; Christians being shameless plagiarisers.
To the Jews, the number forty is significant. It is a number that, when used in terms of time, represents a period of probation or trial and chastisement. It isn’t generally used to signify a specific number, but rather more as a general term for a large figure. When used in terms of time, it simply means a “long time”. Thus, the phrase “40 days and 40 nights” is just another way to say a “really, really long time”. Which is encouraging, really, since forty days without a spot of nutriment to keep the metabolism ticking over is a pretty extreme way to shed a few kilos.
So, back to the last three days. Working backwards, we are now in Fat Thursday, Not to be confused with Maundy Thursday where HMQ totters round to poorer districts handing out little coins. Or, she did once; now it’s a bit more formal. Washing of feet is also involved, but we don’t need to go there, since all this happens at the end of Lent, not at the beginning. Traditionally Fat T is a day dedicated to eating when people meet with their friends and relatives and shovel down large quantities of sweets, cakes and other delicacies usually not partaken of during Lent. Among the most popular all-national dishes served on that day are paczki in Poland or berliner which are fist-sized doughnuts filled with rose hip jam. Stoking up on sugar before the penitent season.
Wednesday. Only in California. A drive-thru (sorry, that is how they spell it) where commuters wind down their car windows, where a priest stands ready, a fast confession, absolution, administration of ashes, then off to work, cleansed and forgiven. Marvellous. I did wonder if a particularly penitent commuter, having a good deal to confess, might cause the traffic to back up as far as San Diego, but, no details were given.
Oh, and before any Canadian friends have a hissy fit, they did it in Vancouver as well. I imagine it was a good deal chillier in the Great White Up ad the priest wore his thermal vest.
Forty eight hours ago was Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, or Mardi Gras, depending on where you live. The idea once was that one “makes a special point of self-examination, of considering what wrongs one need to repent of, and what amendments of life or areas of spiritual growth one especially needs to ask God’s help in dealing with”, before getting shriven on Wednesday. Alternatively, you get to dress up in silly costumes and have a party, with or without pancakes. In New Orleans, they make rather a big deal of it all, festivities beginning two weeks earlier, the final parade being on Tuesday. Cross-dressing is positively encouraged, if this is your particular glass of milk.
Why did I post this? Because it illustrates that we take what we need to take from festivals, high holy days, or holidays, and remake them in our own image, sometimes refreshing the old, sometimes discarding the apparently arcane and reconfiguring them to be culturally relevant and possibly a bit more fun. Is this ‘sinful’? I don’t think so – there are very few Catholics who adhere to the Tridentine (Latin) Rite – most people realise that they get more out of it if they can actually understand what’s going on.
So, pig out, people. It’s gonna be a long Lent.