What is the meaning of lent?
Why do we set aside forty days each year to voluntarily give up some legitimate enjoyments so as to prepare for Easter?
The need for lent is written right into our DNA. Perhaps a look at some of images for lent can help make this clearer. Religiously the richest image we have for lent is the image of the desert, of Jesus going into there voluntarily to fast and pray. Scripture tells us that Jesus went into the desert for forty days and, while there, he ate nothing. This doesn’t necessarily mean that, literally, he took no food or water during that time, but rather that he deprived himself of all physical supports (including food, water, enjoyments, distractions) that protected him from feeling, full force, his vulnerability, dependence, and need to surrender in deeper trust to God. And in doing this, we are told, he found himself hungry and consequently vulnerable to temptations from the devil - but also, by that same token, more open to God.
The desert, by taking away the securities and protections of ordinary life, strips us bare and leaves us naked, both before God and the devil. This brings us face-to-face with our own chaos. That’s an image for lent. But we have some wonderfully rich anthropological images for lent as well. Let me briefly mention three of them.
In virtually every culture there is, somewhere, the concept of having "to sit in the ashes for a time" as a necessary preparation for some deep joy or fulfillment. We see this, for example, in the story of Cinderella. The name itself, Cinderella, holds the key: It is derived from two words: Cinders, meaning ashes; and Puella, the Latin word for young girl. Etymologically, Cinderella means the eternal girl who sits in the ashes, with the further idea being that, before she, or anyone else, gets to put on the royal clothes, go to the ball, and dance with the prince, she must first spend some time sitting in the ashes, tasting some emptiness, feeling some powerlessness, and trusting that this deprivation and humiliation is necessary to help bring about the maturity needed to do the royal dance. There is a similar concept inside some North American Native cultures, where it is accepted that, in everyone’s life, there will come a season where he or she will have to spend some time sitting in the ashes. For example, in some tribes, when they used to live communally in long- houses, the fires for heating and warmth were kept in the center of the house so that a partially open roof could function as a chimney. Ashes would, of course, accumulate around the fires and occasionally someone from the community would, for a period of time, simply sit in the ashes, quiet, withdrawn from ordinary activities, and take little food or water. Eventually a day would come when he or she would get up, wash off the ashes, and resume normal activities. Nobody asked why. It was taken for granted that this person was working through something, a depression or crisis of some sort, and needed that space, that quiet, that withdrawal, to work through some inner chaos and demons. In short, he or she was seen to need a lenten season.
A second image is that of being a child of Saturn. In some mythologies, Saturn was thought to be the planet that causes us to feel sadness and despondency. And so if you were a poet, an artist, a philosopher, a writer, or a religious thinker you would want, sometimes, to sit under Saturn, that is, to enter voluntarily into certain inner areas of the soul that ordinarily you might want to avoid precisely because they trigger chaos, sadness, heaviness, and despondency. Part of the idea was also that, occasionally in every person’s life, you would for a time become a child of Saturn, meaning that you would be overcome by a certain sadness and heaviness and would have to cease your normal activities and sit for a time with that, patiently learning some lessons that only a certain sadness could teach you. Again, the idea was that there is some necessary inner work that can only be done in sadness and heaviness and we need sometimes to enter these voluntarily.
Finally, there is yet another rich image in anthropology to can help us understand lent, the image of our own tears as re-connecting us to the flow of life. The image is simple: Our tears are salt water, as is the ocean which is ultimately the origin of all life on this planet. What our tears do is put as back into touch with the physical origins of all life on this planet, salt water. The idea then is that, occasionally, it is good to forsake the joys of life for the salt of tears because only tears can deepen us and help us connect to our origins and grounding.
Lent is meant to do exactly that.
Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, omi