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The discipline of Lent

Published:Friday | February 19, 2010 | 12:00 AM

ONE OF the lead stories in Wednesday's Gleaner was headlined 'Catholics, Anglicans prepare for Lent', but yesterday's column in this newspaper by the Rev Devon Dick, pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church shows that the observance of Lent and Ash Wednesday is not restricted to Anglicans and Roman Catholics. There are many other Christians who appreciate the season of Lent, and are prepared to enter into its discipline.

story also shows that there are many Christians who don't understand what Lent is all about. Cedric Thompson, associate pastor of the Pentecostal Gospel Temple on Windward Road, Kingston, is reported as saying: "We do not really go out of our way to put any premium on Lent. We will fast and pray any time of the year that we so desire." An unidentified reader commented on the
website: "Reflecting on one's 'sins' should be a daily thing. How to respect and be truthful to show good example to our young ones should be as normal as eating or brushing teeth always, not just during the Lenten season."

Not restricted to Lent

Both these Christians are right, of course. Fasting and praying should not be restricted to Lent, and in fact, Roman Catholics (and Anglicans) can (and do) fast and pray at any time of the year. And anyone who is familiar with traditional Christianity will know that Roman Catholics (and Anglicans) are encouraged to reflect on their sins daily; seeking forgiveness for sins is not just for Lent. Both these Christians are on the right track about general Christian practice, but they show a lack of understanding on what the season of Lent is really about; I would like to help them to understand.

For traditional Christians (hopefully for all Christians), the holiest time of the year is the celebration of the events of long ago surrounding our redemption from the clutches of sin when Jesus ate his last meal with his disciples, then was arrested, whipped, crowned with thorns and executed on a cross he was forced to carry himself; after which he rose from the dead in triumph. So many centuries before, the Hebrews were freed from slavery in Egypt and from the angel of death by the blood of the Passover lamb which was slain. In John's account of the gospel, Jesus was crucified at the same time the Passover lambs were being slain in the temple. Christians believe that Jesus was sacrificed so that we might be freed from slavery to sin, and freed from death by the blood of our own Passover lamb.

A time of preparation

The season of Lent is a time of preparation for this holiest of celebrations - the Christian Passover. Jesus himself was accustomed to going away by himself, from time to time, to pray. Right after his baptism by John the Baptist, Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights where he fasted and prayed, and was tempted by the devil. Every year, traditional Christians prepare for the Christian Passover during a 40-day period (the season of Lent) when we do battle with temptation, and ourselves.

The temptations of Jesus in the desert were similar to those all humans face: pleasure (food, drink, sex, drugs), wealth (material things, money, status symbols like fancy cars and cellphones), and showing off the little power we have (by boasting, lording it over others). These temptations are best fought by fasting (which disciplines our bodies to do without that which we crave), alms giving (what better way to show that we are not enslaved by our possessions than by giving them away), and prayer (which puts us in our place - dependent on God's power - rather than our own). For traditional Christians, every year we go through this special 40-day period of fasting, prayer and alms giving to discipline ourselves, to restore balance in our lives, to get things back into perspective, to examine our lives, to cleanse ourselves of sin, and to be reconciled with God and our brothers and sisters.

Of course, we could do this at any time of the year, but we, traditional Christians, prepare for the Christian Passover in this special way, for maybe left to ourselves to do it "at any time", we might never do it! It is human nature to want to avoid changing our lives.

Peter Espeut is a development sociologist and a Roman Catholic deacon.