Today’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. But what does the word “Lent” mean, and what can we learn from it?
In many languages, the term for this season means something like “The Fast” or “Fasting-Time.” Not so with English. We just named the season Lencten, the Old English word for “spring.” From Etymology Dictionary:
Lent (n.) “period between Ash Wednesday and Easter,” late 14c., short for Lenten (n.) “the forty days of fasting before Easter” in the Christian calendar (early 12c.), from Old English lencten “springtime, spring,” the season, also “the fast of Lent,” from West Germanic *langitinaz “long-days,” or “lengthening of the day” (source also of Old Saxon lentin, Middle Dutch lenten, Old High German lengizin manoth).
Etymology Dictionary goes on to note that the Dutch (lente) and German (Lenz) words for spring come from this same root, but that “the Church sense is peculiar to English.” The Dutch call this liturgical season Vasten (“The Fast”) and the Germans call it Fastenzeit (“Fasting Time”). This very pragmatic approach to naming Christian seasons extends to Easter, in an even more bizarre example:
Easter (n.) Old English Easterdæg, from Eastre (Northumbrian Eostre), from Proto-Germanic *austron-, “dawn,” also the name of a goddess of fertility and spring, perhaps originally of sunrise, whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox, from *aust– “east, toward the sunrise” (compare east), from PIE root *aus– (1) “to shine,” especially of the dawn. Bede says Anglo-Saxon Christians adopted her name and many of the celebratory practices for their Mass of Christ’s resurrection. Almost all neighboring languages use a variant of Latin Pascha to name this holiday (see paschal).
So while virtually every other culture named Easter after the Jewish Passover, Pasch, the English Christians decided to name it after a pagan goddess. Except it’s not quite that simple. The only source we have for this is the Venerable Bede, in his 725 book The Reckoning of Time. There, he explains the history of the name “Eosturmonath,” a month that roughly corresponds to April:
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month,” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.
Here’s what I like about these extremely odd names. Spring is a time of new life, and it’s a time of spring cleaning. You spend all winter cooped up in your home, and it starts to accumulate stuff you don’t really want in it. And so you open the doors and windows, clean out the dust and clutter, and make room for the new. All around you it’s (hopefully) hopefully a season of new life. Everything starts to bloom and grow. Old English farmers were attuned to this in a way that we modern city-dwellers often aren’t. So they took the springtime seriously, and thanked Heaven for it. Before learning about Christ, they directed that thanksgiving to Eostre. When they heard about Christianity, they suddenly had a lot more new life to be thankful for… not only the blossoming trees, but a new spiritual life that would blossom in eternity.
That’s a beautiful way, I think, to understand Lent. It’s the start of spring, both a time of spring cleaning and a time of new life. It’s ultimately a season of looking forward, a time of planting seeds and doing hard work so that you can enjoy a bountiful harvest later on.
To less agrarian-minded readers, maybe this will help. If you’re going to have an amazing dinner, you might skip (or go light on) lunch. Why? To enjoy the coming meal to its fullest. Yeah, it may be a tiny sacrifice during the middle of the day, but it’s totally worth it if you know you’ll enjoy dinner all that much more. A person (or a people) unable or unwilling to do that isn’t limiting how much they suffer from fasting. They’re limiting how much they can enjoy the dinner banquet.
Consider Walter Mischel’s famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment:
Mischel and his colleagues presented a preschooler with a plate of treats such as marshmallows. The child was then told that the researcher had to leave the room for a few minutes, but not before giving the child a simple choice: If the child waited until the researcher returned, she could have two marshmallows. If the child simply couldn’t wait, she could ring a bell and the researcher would come back immediately, but she would only be allowed one marshmallow.
In children, as well as adults, willpower can be thought of as a basic ability to delay gratification. Preschoolers with good self-control sacrifice the immediate pleasure of a chewy marshmallow in order to indulge in two marshmallows at some later point. Ex-smokers forfeit the enjoyment of a cigarette in order to experience good health and avoid an increased risk of lung cancer in the future. Shoppers resist splurging at the mall so they can save for a comfortable retirement. And so on.
Amazingly, the ability or inability of a small child to resist a marshmallow for 15 minutes appears to be predictive of how well or poorly he’ll succeed in many different aspects of life:
And that susceptibility to emotional responses may influence their behavior throughout life, as Mischel discovered when he revisited his marshmallow-test subjects as adolescents. He found that teenagers who had waited longer for the marshmallows as preschoolers were more likely to score higher on the SAT, and their parents were more likely to rate them as having a greater ability to plan, handle stress, respond to reason, exhibit self-control in frustrating situations and concentrate without becoming distracted.
As it turns out, the marshmallow study didn’t end there. Recently, B.J. Casey, PhD, of Weill Cornell Medical College, along with Mischel, Yuichi Shoda, PhD, of the University of Washington, and other colleagues tracked down 59 subjects, now in their 40s, who had participated in the marshmallow experiments as children. The researchers tested the subjects’ willpower strength with a laboratory task known to demonstrate self-control in adults.
So Lent is both a profoundly Christian season, rooted in Christ’s 40-day fast (Matthew 4:2) and Elijah’s 40-day fast (1 Kings 19:8), but it’s also a profoundly human season.
We live in an instant gratification culture, but virtually everything meaningful in life takes discipline and effort. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just consider what you really value: succeeding at your job, getting straight A’s, a great sports season, getting in shape, etc., etc. Whatever that is, chances are you’ve already found that it’s easier to fail than to succeed, and that what comes easy and what’s worth doing often aren’t the same thing. Once you’ve made that realized, and committed to doing the great thing rather than the easy thing, you’re ready for Lent. Christianity proposes to us the greatest thing of all. Pope Benedict XVI explains this promise, and how we’re being prepared for it, in Spe Salvi:
Saint Augustine, in a homily on the First Letter of John, describes very beautifully the intimate relationship between prayer and hope. He defines prayer as an exercise of desire. Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched. “By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him]”. Augustine refers to Saint Paul, who speaks of himself as straining forward to the things that are to come (cf. Phil 3:13). He then uses a very beautiful image to describe this process of enlargement and preparation of the human heart. “Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God’s tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined.
This is the logic of the Cross, as Benedict elsewhere explains:
Christ did not promise an easy life. Those who desire comforts have dialled the wrong number. Rather, he shows us the way to great things, the good, towards an authentic human life.
When he speaks of the cross that we ourselves have to carry, it has nothing to do with a taste for torture or of pedantic moralism. It is the impulse of love, which has its own momentum and does not seek itself but opens the person to the service of truth, justice and the good. Christ shows God to us, and thus the true greatness of man.
So as we begin the season of Lent, step away from the world of comfort and prepare for the world of Greatness, true Greatness, and your Lent will be an authentic springtime.