Lent arrives with a familiar feeling of obligation, a feeling that tugs at me though I have no reason to acknowledge or honor it. If I have ever believed, it hasn’t been for a long time.
The word “Lent” is so simple, and I associate it so entirely with deprivation, abstinence, spiritual cleansing, that it hadn’t occurred to me until today to wonder where it came from. It’s a word that has come to seem almost onomatopoeic—an illusion generated perhaps by its rhyme with “repent,” or because it is such a gentle, fluttering, plaintive word, a tongue to the teeth, a wet leaf flicked by the wind. It seems a word designed for the use we give it now.
But “Lent” comes from an old English word for spring. It’s simply a designation of a season. Associating Lent with fasting, with Christ’s season in the wilderness, must grow out of an historical necessity. After the long winter, the storehouses are nearly empty but the ground is still too cold to replenish them. Spring—Lent—is a season of starvation, ironically butting up against the season of abundance and rebirth. Making a spiritual discipline of it is making a virtue of necessity.
New York is the first place I learned to understand how spring could be cruel. In the south, spring comes on fast and easy. Here it approaches and recedes, torturing the weather, tempting you to plant seeds, then crippling your sprouts with late frost. It’s also the first place I’ve lived where I saw regular people walking around on Ash Wednesday with ashy crosses on their foreheads. It came as a surprise to me, who’d grown up in the Christian south thinking of New York City as a wildlife preserve for pagans and atheists, to see this public demonstration of piety on the subway platforms. Perhaps the austerity of Lent is easier to embrace in a place like this, where spring isn’t a riot of flowers and sweet peas.
I’ve made symbolic (and secular) sacrifices for Lent in the past–I’ve given up meat, sugar, alcohol, sleep. This year I plan not to give something up but to meditate on something I lost long ago, think about a hunger I already feel.