Last weekend, I and some others were chatting with a new friend who happened to be Muslim. It came up that the Christian Church is currently in the season of Lent, and my new friend had never heard of it before. I and the other Christians in the room began to explain Lent as a season of prayer and fasting. We quickly made the analogy comparing Lent with Ramadan. The purpose of Lent became more clear to him, but he also began to ask questions. The conversation went something like this:
“So how long is Lent? A week?”
“No, it’s 4o days, not counting Sundays.”
“Christians fast for forty days?”
“Well… no. Some give up meat. Some will fast just on certain days. Some give up other things.”
“In Ramadan, we don’t eat at all during the day, and only eat after sundown. So in Lent, Christians just give up something?”
“Well… some Christians. Some don’t do anything.”
By the end of the conversation. Lent was a thoroughly unimpressive season compared to Ramadan.
I admit that it’s probably not good to compare the two seasons too closely. They’re two different seasons, practiced by two different faiths, and have two different purposes behind them. But the practice of fasting, at least in theory, remains a common element.
Why is it that as Christians, we’re particularly bad at living into the meaning, purpose, and practices of Lent, or any other of our seasons and feast days? I’ve lived in Squirrel Hill now for nearly two years. The neighborhood is forty percent Jewish; there’s a synagogue practically on every block. Judaism is to this neighborhood what Presbyterianism is to the rest of Pittsburgh. In my time here, I’ve been struck by how visibly and noticeably my Jewish neighbors live into their seasons and holy days. Families wear costumes on Purim, light menorahs during Hanukkah, and build booths in their backyards at Sukkot. With Passover approaching, the bread aisle at the local Giant Eagle has been replaced with matzoh crackers and other Passover items. If you somehow lost track of the day of the week in Squirrel Hill, you can always tell if it’s Friday evening or Saturday morning; Jewish families will be heading to Shabbat services.
These are just a few of the more visible practices, and the practices of my Jewish neighbors is just one example. People who live in predominantly Muslim or Hindu areas, no doubt, have similar observations.
Why do Christians seem to be so much more laxidasical in their observance of seasons and holy days? As our Western context becomes more and more pluralistic, our observance of our seasons and feasts may be one of our most opportune forms of witness.
We need to overcome our liturgical wimpiness. How many of us actually practice some form of fasting during Lent (or Advent, our other penitential season)? How many of us will celebrate Christmastide for a full 12 days, or Eastertide for a full 50 days? How many will take time to remember Christ’s crucifixion between noon and 3:00 on Good Friday? How many Christians will even notice that it’s the feast day of the Ascension on May 13 this year? And what about some of the less commercialized (and consequently lesser known) feast days, like Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, Transfiguration, All Saints Day, and countless saints days?
With all of these days, there are particular traditions that Christians in the past (and some in the present) have practiced as a way of remembering what God has done, and proclaiming it to the world around them. It’s time, I think, for the Church to reclaim this piece of its heritage.