This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 2, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Lent! Its arrival is not heralded with the great joy with which folks welcome Advent, the harbinger of Christmas. No doubt the attitude difference is seen, because Lent is considered a time to repent and to feel sorrow for your sins.
Ashes and sackcloth are ancient symbols of being truly sorry for your sins, and committing yourselves to repentance (“to repent” means “to turn around”).
The opulence and decadence in today’s world surely calls for some confession and contrition.
In the early history of Christianity, asceticism, not just during Lent but all year long, was practiced by many pious folks. “Asceticism” is the renouncing of material possessions and physical pleasures, -- you could actually be an ascetic without being a Christian (there have been ascetics in all cultures and religions). But, if you were a Christian, it was like observing Lent all year long.
Asceticism was especially practiced by Christian hermits, monks, beggars-by-choice, etc., and the largest number seemed to be found in the Russian Orthodox Church. I am not passing judgment on ascetics, but from my point of view and temperament, it baffles me that anyone would willingly give up material well-being and physical pleasures for a whole lifetime. Granted, today’s world has gone too far the other way, but, hey, what about the Aristotelian Golden Mean?
The gifted Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, was both influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church, and, also, at the same time, “at war” with them. In reading Henri Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy and excerpts from the Count’s diary, I saw a great sense of guilt and need for forgiveness in the great author who turned to spiritual writings in his later years. He felt guilty, and thought everyone else should also, for having so much wealth and abundance while his muzhiks (serfs whom he owned) had little or none. It seems to me he tried to give himself absolution by giving away some of his property to the serfs, working along side them in the fields, and eating only the gruel and vegetables they ate.
It seems to me that this kind of “repentance” did not provide him with a sense of being forgiven and accepted by God. Had he allowed his wife to give away everything, I doubt that it would still have not alleviated his feelings of guilt. But then maybe it did. Who can understand the mind of the greatest authors in the world? I mention him, because he is probably the most famous example of an ascetic.
For the rest of the world, who are neither ascetics nor adherents to the Aristotelian Golden Mean, life becomes a see-saw at times. They need Lent to follow the Carnival Season.
This past Tuesday, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the “Carnival Season” ended at midnight. The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is known as “Mardi Gras.” Starting on Twelfth Night and ending on Fat Tuesday, is the Carnival Season. It is the festive season before Lent, with parades, parties, dances, and, in most cases, lots of drinking. It’s like people are trying to cram in all the fun they can do before Lent begins, when they have to give up things.
By the way, the word “carnival” comes from a Latin word meaning literally “to take away meat.”
The Carnival Season has just ended in New Orleans, with its Mardi Gras parades and parties. And also in Galveston. The biggest, and probably the wildest, carnival season celebrations in the world take place in Rio de Janeiro, where two million people per day take to the streets in revelry. Carnival season in Rio de Janeiro dates back to the 1700’s, and throughout Europe, the tradition goes back even farther than that. I rather doubt that these celebrations have any connection to Lent anymore, I suspect that people are not celebrating one last time before they have to fast. Traditions continue even long after nobody remembers why they were begun in the first place.
As a person who has a Christian sense of moderation, I have no interest in celebrating during the “Carnival Season,” nor could I ever be a true ascetic, but I have no problems with Lent. Festive occasions like the Wedding Feast at Cana, which Jesus enjoyed, are a part of the wonderfulness of life itself. Repentance and forgiveness are precious gifts from God, and they’re really not restricted to any season.
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.