Lent is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning Spring (Lenten). In France the season is known as Careme; in Italy as Quaresirna, both from the Latin Quadragesima. All these names are derived from the fact that the first Sunday in Lent was originally called Quadragesima. the fortieth day before Easter and for those liturgies still using Latin words in their calendars, Lent is actually divided from Epiphany by the so-called pre Lenten season, the three Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. These three Sundays preceding the beginning of Lent (or Quadragesima) take these names by analogy and not because they are respectively the fiftieth, sixtieth and seventieth days before Easter.
The purpose of Lent is not primarily to commemorate the forty day fast of Christ in the wilderness which immediately followed His baptism. In the ancient church Lent was above all things the period of spiritual training and instruction which preceded initiation into the Christian mysteries by the sacrament of baptism. The proper time for initiation was Easter Eve, because the Sunday of the Resurrection is the greatest feast of the whole year for Christians; Christmas is only the beginning.
…Although Lent was primarily a period of preparation for the catechumens before their baptism, the period of forty days became one devoted to fasting and abstinence for penitents and faithful alike. The fasting itself consisted in special acts of piety as well as abstention from flesh food. By flesh food is meant blood both Hebrew and Christian symbolism identify blood with the life principle, and abstention from blood is in recollection of the shedding of the blood of Christ, symbolically the pouring out of the divine life into human nature.
At present, however, the penitential observances of the church have in practice sentimental rather than a spiritual atmosphere; they express a sort of feeling of remorse rather than the “metanoia” of which the Philokalia speaks…
How are we to take the time of Lent, which for so called Christians is a time for penance, fasting and also vigils?
I say so called as Mr. G. might well have reminded us, because for most people Lent will be a season simply for a few formalized penitential practices, half understood and undertaken without interest and which for some will be an occasion for giving up sweets or chocolate.
“There is, however, a paradoxical aspect of Lent which can be a means of looking into ourselves, really looking into what we are, an acceptance of one’s actual condition and if one does this deeply the acceptance of reality and the shedding of the burden of illusion brings a special kind of reward and joy. There is the story of the rending of the garments which, if done perfunctorily, lets in nothing but the cold, and some start Lent with ashes on their foreheads.
I believe that for us none of these practices is appropriate. We should not take upon ourselves a burden of penance but rather start Lent with an effort to realize what we have not seen before. By all means practice some kind of fasting as a reminding factor, but do it invisibly and intelligently. Fasting is a good thing because food itself is a good thing. But the good things of this world have this about them, that they are good “in their season” and not out of it.
I would suggest that for us the key word of Lent should be moderation. Look at the meaning of this word in all aspects of your life. I would not suggest that anyone sets himself, for example, to follow Mr. B’s example of reading “Beelzebub” aloud at one sitting of over 24 hours until his whole tongue became swollen. Rather take on a judicious series of daily readings for oneself, each according to his and her capacity in moderation, but without fail.
What is the appropriate attitude to fasting?
To me the answer is very clear: fasting should be something spiritual. It implies inner exercises or prayers, silence, an internal disposition of mind, an attempt to be charitable, kind, tolerant etc. Fasting is not to be identified with a good deed that merits a reward, in the sense of what shall I give up by way of fasting or let fasting be something instrumental and not an end in itself. Fasting in other words is but a means of reaching a spiritual and therefore for us an integral part of our inner work.