Currently in the Christian calendar, it is the time of ‘Lent’.
When I was growing up, I had no idea where the word ‘Lent’ actually came from. It was just another boring, stultifying, stuffy word associated with Christianity. It was about taking things out of one’s life that were good in order to suffer unnecessarily (as I was given to understand that Lent was about ‘giving up’ something one liked).
Old idea: Lent is about lack, about irrationally removing good things in one’s life.
This was basically the notion I associated with ‘Lent’ (‘zzzz …’) for almost my entire life.
What is interesting, however, is that Lent is actually an Old English word for Spring, and furthermore that Spring is in a way a more natural (literally!) time for the start of a new year. In a sense, then, ‘Lent’ can be thought to bring in the new year in another (natural) sense in addition to the tradition of the New Year beginning on January 1st.
But what of the odd, backwards Christian notion of ‘giving something up’ for Lent? If you think of Lent as the start of a new year, then consider the popular tradition for the secular New Year which is in some ways similar to the idea of giving something up – we call them ‘New Year’s Resolutions’.
Yet, no one thinks that New Year’s Resolutions are about lack – rather, they are about making our lives better, often by reducing our consumption of certain things or starting new patterns of activity such as certain kinds of exercise.
New idea: Similarly in Christian society, at the ‘beginning’ of the year it is a time for renewal, for launching out on practices in order to increase abundance in our lives. In particular it is a period for starting new spiritual practices.
There is a strong tradition in Christianity of ‘asceticism’. I used to think of asceticism similarly to how I conceive of Lent – a giving up of things irrationally. Here’s what’s interesting about ‘asceticism’, though: it comes from an ancient Greek word, meaning ‘bodily training’. Asceticism was originally about bodily training, i.e., the common New Year’s Resolution!
The whole idea with asceticism (both in the original etymological sense and what is probably a more accurate Christian sense) is that any lack is done in order to have abundance. Christians go beyond bodily training, to spiritual training (which has as one goal to increase our will-power, so as to increase our freedom). When training, one doesn’t focus on lack but rather has a vision of an abundance of health, vitality, strength, that presumably might occur because of the ascetic practice. Similarly, one point of ascetic practices in Christianity is to increase the abundance of joy, love, will power (and therefore freedom), and so on, in one’s life.
(The period of Lent in the Christian calendar is approximately 40 days long, which is also probably a good duration to create a new habit which is then fairly strong in many cases.)