Why Easter is called Easter, and other little-known facts about the holiday

Why Easter is called Easter, and other little-known facts about the holiday

Image 20170411 26706 ygcz2u.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
What is the origin of Easter eggs? Katie Morrow, CC BY-NC-ND

On April 21, Christians will be celebrating Easter, the day on which the resurrection of Jesus is said to have taken place. The date of celebration changes from year to year.

The reason for this variation is that Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. So, in 2020, Easter will be celebrated on April 12, and on April 4 in 2021.

I am a religious studies scholar specializing in early Christianity, and my research shows that this dating of Easter goes back to the complicated origins of this holiday and how it has evolved over the centuries.

Easter is quite similar to other major holidays like Christmas and Halloween, which have evolved over the last 200 years or so. In all of these holidays, Christian and non-Christian (pagan) elements have continued to blend together.

Easter as a rite of spring

Most major holidays have some connection to the changing of seasons. This is especially obvious in the case of Christmas. The New Testament gives no information about what time of year Jesus was born. Many scholars believe, however, that the main reason Jesus’ birth came to be celebrated on December 25 is because that was the date of the winter solstice according to the Roman calendar.

Since the days following the winter solstice gradually become longer and less dark, it was ideal symbolism for the birth of “the light of the world” as stated in the New Testament’s Gospel of John.

Similar was the case with Easter, which falls in close proximity to another key point in the solar year: the vernal equinox (around March 20), when there are equal periods of light and darkness. For those in northern latitudes, the coming of spring is often met with excitement, as it means an end to the cold days of winter.

Spring also means the coming back to life of plants and trees that have been dormant for winter, as well as the birth of new life in the animal world. Given the symbolism of new life and rebirth, it was only natural to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at this time of the year.

The naming of the celebration as “Easter” seems to go back to the name of a pre-Christian goddess in England, Eostre, who was celebrated at beginning of spring. The only reference to this goddess comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, a British monk who lived in the late seventh and early eighth century. As religious studies scholar Bruce Forbes summarizes:

“Bede wrote that the month in which English Christians were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus had been called Eosturmonath in Old English, referring to a goddess named Eostre. And even though Christians had begun affirming the Christian meaning of the celebration, they continued to use the name of the goddess to designate the season.”

Bede was so influential for later Christians that the name stuck, and hence Easter remains the name by which the English, Germans and Americans refer to the festival of Jesus’ resurrection.

The connection with Jewish Passover

It is important to point out that while the name “Easter” is used in the English-speaking world, many more cultures refer to it by terms best translated as “Passover” (for instance, “Pascha” in Greek) – a reference, indeed, to the Jewish festival of Passover.

In the Hebrew Bible, Passover is a festival that commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, as narrated in the Book of Exodus. It was and continues to be the most important Jewish seasonal festival, celebrated on the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

At the time of Jesus, Passover had special significance, as the Jewish people were again under the dominance of foreign powers (namely, the Romans). Jewish pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem every year in the hope that God’s chosen people (as they believed themselves to be) would soon be liberated once more.

On one Passover, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate the festival. He entered Jerusalem in a triumphal procession and created a disturbance in the Jerusalem Temple. It seems that both of these actions attracted the attention of the Romans, and that as a result Jesus was executed around the year A.D. 30.

Some of Jesus’ followers, however, believed that they saw him alive after his death, experiences that gave birth to the Christian religion. As Jesus died during the Passover festival and his followers believed he was resurrected from the dead three days later, it was logical to commemorate these events in close proximity.

Resurrection. Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., CC BY-NC-ND

Some early Christians chose to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on the same date as the Jewish Passover, which fell around day 14 of the month of Nisan, in March or April. These Christians were known as Quartodecimans (the name means “Fourteeners”).

By choosing this date, they put the focus on when Jesus died and also emphasized continuity with the Judaism out of which Christianity emerged. Some others instead preferred to hold the festival on a Sunday, since that was when Jesus’ tomb was believed to have been found.

In A.D. 325, the Emperor Constantine, who favored Christianity, convened a meeting of Christian leaders to resolve important disputes at the Council of Nicaea. The most fateful of its decisions was about the status of Christ, whom the council recognized as “fully human and fully divine.” This council also resolved that Easter should be fixed on a Sunday, not on day 14 of Nisan. As a result, Easter is now celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal equinox.

The Easter bunny and Easter eggs

In early America, the Easter festival was far more popular among Catholics than Protestants. For instance, the New England Puritans regarded both Easter and Christmas as too tainted by non-Christian influences to be appropriate to celebrate. Such festivals also tended to be opportunities for heavy drinking and merrymaking.

The fortunes of both holidays changed in the 19th century, when they became occasions to be spent with one’s family. This was done partly out of a desire to make the celebration of these holidays less rowdy.

Children on an egg hunt. Susan Bassett, CC BY-NC-ND

But Easter and Christmas also became reshaped as domestic holidays because understandings of children were changing. Prior to the 17th century, children were rarely the center of attention. As historian Stephen Nissenbaum writes,

“…children were lumped together with other members of the lower orders in general, especially servants and apprentices – who, not coincidentally, were generally young people themselves.”

From the 17th century onward, there was an increasing recognition of childhood as as time of life that should be joyous, not simply as preparatory for adulthood. This “discovery of childhood” and the doting upon children had profound effects on how Easter was celebrated.

It is at this point in the holiday’s development that Easter eggs and the Easter bunny become especially important. Decorated eggs had been part of the Easter festival at least since medieval times, given the obvious symbolism of new life. A vast amount of folklore surrounds Easter eggs, and in a number of Eastern European countries, the process of decorating them is extremely elaborate. Several Eastern European legends describe eggs turning red (a favorite color for Easter eggs) in connection with the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Yet it was only in the 17th century that a German tradition of an “Easter hare” bringing eggs to good children came to be known. Hares and rabbits had a long association with spring seasonal rituals because of their amazing powers of fertility.

When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought this tradition with them. The wild hare also became supplanted by the more docile and domestic rabbit, in another indication of how the focus moved toward children.

As Christians celebrate the festival this spring in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection, the familiar sights of the Easter bunny and Easter eggs serve as a reminder of the holiday’s very ancient origins outside of the Christian tradition.

This is an updated version of a piece published on March 21, 2018.The Conversation

Brent Landau, Lecturer in Religious Studies, University of Texas at Austin

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When It is Not Well With My Soul

When It is Not Well With My Soul

“When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say: ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’” But …. what if it’s not?

When I first got the idea for this article, I was in a place where I felt like everything in my life was being called into question. Where I belonged in the world, what I should do with my time, and how my future would pan out all felt like amateur self-exploration, lacking definitive, almost-thirty-year-old confidence. The voice of societal pressure to do more, work harder and be better is loud, but the little voice in my head that won’t let me deny my insecurities is even louder.

Being Christian doesn’t equate to having it all together and being happy all the time —  the scriptures forewarned that in this world I would face trouble and that long-suffering is a virtue.

It never ceases to amaze me how it can feel like I’m on a long “winning streak” with God, then one or two things fall out of my desired order and my heart is immediately inclined to pull away from Him. Who do I think I am?

I certainly couldn’t answer any of the questions God asked Job when Job felt prime enough in his suffering to question God. I do it anyway. We all do. We want our way. We have enough common sense to understand that God is not a genie in a bottle here to fulfill our every wish, yet we find ourselves shook when every prayer isn’t answered the way we want or as quickly as we’d like. We lift our hands and sing WE SURRENDER ALL to a sovereign God with the final say, yet we still keep a plan B in mind ever so discreetly.

This walk of faith is exactly that–a walk. Along that walk, we might find some of the greatest joys and successes of our entire lives and have the opportunity to walk alongside gems of people. Some parts of the walk might be dark and cold, and we find ourselves dressed inappropriately for the weather. Some parts we’ll walk alone, and the soles of our shoes might give way to blistered toes scaling the earth.  


Video Courtesy of Black Enterprise


It’s in those times that I find myself in a funk. Here’s what I do to surrender the weight of what I’m carrying and genuinely leave it at His feet.

  • Adopt a perspective of gratefulness. It is a privilege to work and earn a steady income. I GET to have a challenging job to practice diligence as unto God. I GET to juggle multiple responsibilities because I’m entrusted with those things. I have many freedoms in my life for which others still pray. This shift in perspective alone was enough in most cases to quiet my unrest.
  • Affirm and encourage myself. At times, the root of our unrest is in what we believe about ourselves. Do my circumstances define me and my capabilities? Is my identity, worth, and value rooted in my 9-5? No to both. I am valuable because He says I am, and that settles it. There is so much love around me, and it has been a blessing to be molded and shaped by the beauty around me into who I am. I am more than capable, and in Christ, I am more than a conqueror.
  • Be transparent with those I love and trust. Pride has a way of bulking up our chests while causing us to fall apart on the inside quietly. Sharing my experiences with trusted friends and family is a tremendously helpful way in knowing I do not carry my burdens alone, and making room for the listener’s advice, wisdom, and perspective on the situation.
  • Make room for things I genuinely enjoy. Finding a healthy outlet is very helpful in renewing the mind. For me, that is writing and spending unfettered time with loved ones. For you, that might be playing an instrument, exercising, visiting a new place, etc.
  • Keep praising. When I feel down, it sometimes feels like the last thing I want to do is muster up the energy to praise, but that’s often exactly what I need to do. Led by Hebrew 13:15, I offer unto God a sacrifice of praise. I might not have it all together, but He does, and He continually calls me to Himself, so I might find rest.

When it is not well with my soul, my task is not to throw in the towel on my faith. It is to dust myself off and take hold of the Mighty Hand that will walk with me, wade through the waters with me, and carry (or pull) me along as necessary.

That Mighty Hand promised He would never leave me nor forsake me, so I’m standing on that.

He said He is faithful to complete the work He has started in me. I’ll believe it.

He tells me suffering produces character, so I’ll write that on the tablet of my heart.

I might kick and scream at times, but I will remain confident that my God will not withhold any good thing from me, and that He ultimately knows what is best. I’ll stay confident that I’ll continue to see His goodness while here on earth, and even after this earth is history. The fact that my home, where I truly belong, is an eternal place is evidence enough to proclaim that it is well with my soul, regardless of any earthly circumstance.

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say…. It is well, and it is well with my soul.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Chriska is a twenty-something Haitian-American attorney with a passion for Jesus, traveling, writing, fashion, and spending quality time with loved ones. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from William Jewell College, and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Missouri (Kansas City) School of Law.

From black megachurch to big screen: Another team of brothers directs new movie

From black megachurch to big screen: Another team of brothers directs new movie

Video Courtesy of Sinners Wanted


Jimmy Jenkins and his brother, Joshua, stood in front of the crowd at a local AMC movie theater and admitted to being overwhelmed.

After showing their new movie, “Sinners Wanted,” for free the previous weekend at the black megachurch where their father preaches, on Friday (March 22) they were in a nearby theater filled with people who had paid for tickets to watch their first joint film project.

Like at least two other brother filmmaker teams before them, the Jenkins siblings are hoping their independent film will continue to expand the depiction of biblically based stories on the big screen.

They have chosen a particularly provocative storyline: A preacher named Leo Shepherd befriends, dates and marries a prostitute named Ginger “GiGi” Clementine.

“It came from the book of Hosea — Hosea, Chapter 3, verse 1 — when God told Hosea to go love a prostitute to show Israel how much he loves her,” said Jimmy Jenkins, the younger of the two brothers, in an interview.

“I wanted to take it and create it into a modern-day story that people can understand how much God loves humanity.”

Near the start of the movie, Gigi comes into the black Washington, D.C., church, beaten and bruised after a difficult night. An usher asks a scantily clad Gigi: “Why are you disturbing our service?”

Shepherd, the brand-new pastor, responds with a verse about God’s grace.

“She can have a seat. It’s all right,” he says.

The movie, which focuses on the need for forgiveness and on welcoming people frowning church elders considered undesirable, was presented last year at several film festivals, including the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Brothers Joshua, left, and Jimmy Jenkins at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden Film Ministry’s premiere of the “Sinners Wanted” film on March 16, 2019, at First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Md. Photo courtesy of First Baptist Church of Glenarden

Jenkins, 28, a filmmaker since age 22, partnered with his older brother, the leader of the young adult and drama ministries at their father’s First Baptist Church of Glenarden, to present the film through their company Jenk Ink LLC. They follow others in the faith-related film business, including brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin, creators of “Woodlawn,” and Alex and Stephen Kendrick, whose movie “War Room” had the seventh-highest box office success for a Christian film.

Jimmy Jenkins said he sought out the Kendrick brothers for advice last year and their discussion encouraged him.

“They told me that the God idea works,” he said. “That’s one of the big things I got from it: Follow God’s will before you try to follow your will and when you do that, God can really bless you.”

Some of the Kendricks’ earliest films were supported by volunteers from their Albany, Ga., church who provided most of the cast, crew and catering.

Similarly, the Jenkins brothers have relied on their church for support of their production, with many of the extras coming from their Maryland congregation.

Their independent film, which has a six-figure budget, was shot in 16 days, with some scenes set in two neighboring Baptist churches in Washington, D.C. The directors coordinated around the schedules of their more well-known actors, including Lamman Rucker (of “Greenleaf,” an Oprah Winfrey Network drama about a family that runs a black megachurch) and Clifton Powell (of “Ray,” the 2004 movie about musician Ray Charles).

After selling out at the movie theater, the film is set to screen again the last weekend in March. Jenkins said he’s hoping it will expand to other theaters and churches.

Rucker, who played a church elder who declared that GiGi “doesn’t look like a Christian to me,” said in a panel discussion after the premiere that productions like these are “a labor of love” for actors like him.

“This wasn’t about getting paid,” he said. “This wasn’t about getting famous.”

Powell, a Washington, D.C., native, added in the same discussion that their participation helps dispel a fallacy about African-American actors leaving their hometowns behind when they head to Hollywood.

“When they say DC and it’s young men like this, we’re going to be here,” said Powell, who plays the church’s facilities director. “It’s all about relationships and it’s all about where we keep our minds as entertainers.”

He added that — as has been the case for some Christian films picked up by major companies — movies don’t have to be produced in Hollywood to gain a following.

“The power is right here in this church,” he said. “All y’all got to do is go out and support the movie and Hollywood will come to your house.”

Ginger and Leo, played by Ashley Rios and Kenneth Wayne, in the new film “Sinners Wanted.” Photo courtesy of Jenk Ink

Can Science and Faith Co-Exist?

Can Science and Faith Co-Exist?

Video Courtesy of Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science


So you’re intelligent. You’re a Christian. You love both of those aspects about yourself. It’s not enough for you to just get your praise on, you also get your study on.

You read the Bible, but you also read widely on many other subjects. You are in college and you don’t dread your courseload, except that one class. That one science class.

You imagine a professor opposed to anything that resembles religion or Christianity. You fear being embarrassed or ridiculed because of your faith. I’ve been there. Many of us who strive to represent our faith and use our minds for God’s glory have been there.

For me, it was Anthropology 101. For others, it was physics or astronomy. As science explores the natural world, it is inevitable that questions about who created this natural world come up. The good thing is that science and your faith can co-exist.

They are not polar opposites, and belief and love of one does not cancel out your belief in and love of the other.

In my pursuit of reconciling faith and science, I have concluded that they both have an authority, but their authority is relegated to two different spheres. Science asks, “What’s out there?” Faith asks, “Why are we here?”

Albert Einstein categorized these two questions as questions of fact and questions of value. Although in many ways these two things overlap and play off of each other, I do not believe they cancel each other out.

Science answers questions about what is observable and what we can quantify. In other words, it doesn’t seek to ask questions regarding the meaning of what we observe and quantify. Those things we believe in before we do any experiments or formulate our theories.

We already enter the science lab or classroom with a bias toward belief or non-belief in a Creator. We already have a religious tradition we hold to or don’t. The answers of science bring these issues to the surface, but they can never give the final answer on these issues.

What’s interesting is that the Christian faith helped aid the development of science. Galileo Galilei, who was sadly opposed by the medieval church, was a Christian and believed God had given us our mental faculties to explore the world.

He believed “the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has not intended us to forgo their use.” It was this belief that prompted Galileo to explore the universe and confirm that the planets revolve around the sun.

Ultimately, this discovery would lead to him placed under house arrest by church authorities. Galileo firmly believed in the two categories of facts and value, as he stated, “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

Although not a Christian, Albert Einstein believed in a higher power. His whole goal in pursuing scientific work was to see the mystery behind nature and to “attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.”

Einstein did not adhere to traditional religion, but had a particular disdain for atheists, considering them to be missing out on the wonder of the world and “the music of the spheres.”

Einstein could grasp science and the existence of something beyond our world. It is this mindset that motivated him to say “science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

Then there’s the man that conquered the peanut and saved the whole South. A devout Christian man, George Washington Carver always found time to teach Sunday School to the students at Tuskegee University.

His fervent work into the peanut was fueled by his belief of the outdoors being a “great cathedral in which God could be continuously spoken to and heard from.” Carver’s time in the “great cathedral” yielded over 300 uses for the peanut and 100 uses for the sweet potato, as well as numerous synthetic products like the dye still used in Crayola crayons.

When faith and science clash

So what happens when scientific discoveries clash with your beliefs? Discoveries and theories in regards to evolution, cloning, and astronomy may seem to come into conflict with classical interpretations of the Bible.

Here’s what the great African theologian Augustine of Hippo had to say about it:

“If they [the infidel] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learned from experience and the light of reason?”

Augustine here is saying that instead of continuing to promote ignorance in matters of science, we need to be careful with making dogmatic assertions on things the Bible is not concerned about. The Bible contains science, but it is not a science book.

The Bible’s main purpose is spelled out by Jesus in John 5:39: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (NLT).

The Bible is the history of God’s interaction with His people pointing to Jesus Christ. Its purpose is to lead you to Jesus and draw you closer to Him. It is not designed to give you a thorough explanation and summary of physics, biology, or astronomy. It is designed to give you one thing: knowledge and love for Jesus.

When faith and science clash, we have to begin questioning our interpretation—not our faith. When we fail to do this, it only serves to cause those who don’t believe to mock and ignore us.

For example: In Psalm 19, David talks about how the sun revolves around the earth. It rises from one end and completes its course at another end like a runner in a race. We know from science that it is actually the earth that revolves around the sun.

This is what got Galileo silenced and put on house arrest by the church. Instead of insisting that we need keep up the belief that the sun moves around the earth, maybe a different

interpretation is needed. David was not a scientist, but he was a poet or a psalmist. Psalm 19 is an example of Hebrew poetry, and we know poetry is never to be taken literally.

So what can we say about David’s assertion that the sun revolves around the earth?

That the psalm’s point is not to assert that the sun revolves around the earth. It was, instead, David’s way of being in awe of nature—something that scientists and Christians can both agree on.

Science and faith are not opposites. They are just different ways of pursuing different types of knowledge. One deals with facts and the other deals with the meaning of those facts.

They both are needed and can help in our pursuit of truth. So instead of dreading interacting with your professor or hanging out with your really smart friend, maybe you could engage them with humility and an openness to see where science and faith can connect instead of clash.

It just might open up a new understanding and love for God for the both of you.

Trump signed Bibles. Heresy? Many religious leaders say no

Trump signed Bibles. Heresy? Many religious leaders say no

President Donald Trump signs a Bible as he greets people at Providence Baptist Church in Smiths Station, Ala., Friday, March 8, 2019, as they travel to tour areas where tornados killed 23 people in Lee County, Ala. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Donald Trump was just doing what he could to raise spirits when he signed Bibles at an Alabama church for survivors of a tornado outbreak, many religious leaders say, though some are offended and others say he could have handled it differently.

Hershael York, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary School of Theology in Louisville, Kentucky, said he didn’t have a problem with Trump signing Bibles, like former presidents have, because he was asked and because it was important to the people who were asking.

“Though we don’t have a national faith, there is faith in our nation, and so it’s not at all surprising that people would have politicians sign their Bibles,” he said. “Those Bibles are meaningful to them and apparently these politicians are, too.”

But the Rev. Donnie Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, said she was offended by the way Trump scrawled his signature Friday as he autographed Bibles and other things, including hats, and posed for photos. She viewed it, she said, as a “calculated political move” by the Republican president to court his evangelical voting base.

Presidents have a long history of signing Bibles, though earlier presidents typically signed them as gifts to send with a spiritual message. President Ronald Reagan signed a Bible that was sent secretly to Iranian officials in 1986. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the family Bible his attorney general used to take the oath of office in 1939.

It would have been different, Anderson said, if Trump had signed a Bible out of the limelight for someone with whom he had a close connection.

“For me, the Bible is a very important part of my faith, and I don’t think it should be used as a political ploy,” she said. “I saw it being used just as something out there to symbolize his support for the evangelical community, and it shouldn’t be used in that way. People should have more respect for Scripture.”

York said that he, personally, would not ask a politician to sign a Bible, but that he has been asked to sign Bibles after he preaches. It feels awkward, he said, but he doesn’t refuse.

“If it’s meaningful to them to have signatures in their Bible, I’m willing to do that,” he said.

A request for comment was left with the White House on Saturday, a day after Trump visited Alabama to survey the devastation and pay respects to tornado victims. The tornado carved a path of destruction nearly a mile wide, killing 23 people, including four children and a couple in their 80s, with 10 victims belonging to a single extended family.

At the Providence Baptist Church in the Beauregard community in Alabama, the Rev. Rusty Sowell said, the president’s visit was uplifting and will help bring attention to a community that will need a long time to recover.

Before leaving the church, Trump posed for a photograph with a fifth-grade volunteer and signed the child’s Bible, said Ada Ingram, a local volunteer. The president also signed her sister’s Bible, Ingram said. In photos from the visit, Trump is shown signing the cover of a Bible.

Trump should have at least signed inside in a less ostentatious way, said the Rev. Dr. Kevin Cassiday-Maloney.

“It just felt like hubris,” said Cassiday-Maloney, pastor at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Fargo, North Dakota. “It almost felt like a desecration of the holy book to put his signature on the front writ large, literally.”

He doesn’t think politicians should sign Bibles, he said, because it could be seen as a blurring of church and state and an endorsement of Christianity over other religions.

It would have been out of line if Trump had brought Bibles and given them out, but that wasn’t the case, said James Coffin, executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

“Too much is being made out of something that doesn’t deserve that kind of attention,” he said.

Bill Leonard, the founding dean and professor of divinity emeritus at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, woke up to Facebook posts Saturday morning by former students who were upset about Trump signing the Bibles because they don’t view him as an appropriate example of spiritual guidance.

But, Leonard said, it’s important to remember that signing Bibles is an old tradition, particularly in Southern churches.

Leonard said he would have viewed it as more problematic if the signings were done at a political rally. He doesn’t see how Trump could have refused at the church.

“It would’ve been worse if he had said no because it would’ve seemed unkind, and this was at least one way he could show his concern along with his visit,” he said. “In this setting, where tragedy has occurred and where he comes for this brief visit, we need to have some grace about that for these folks.”

___

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Kentucky; Dave Kolpack in Fargo, North Dakota; and Michael Schneider in Orlando, Florida.

 

When Lenten fasting is indistinguishable from a New Age cleanse

When Lenten fasting is indistinguishable from a New Age cleanse

Glasses with fresh organic vegetable and fruit juices as part of a detox diet. Many people opt to make healthier diet decisions during Lent, rather than simply abstaining from certain things. Photo by Derrick Brutel/Creative Commons

What are you giving up for Lent?

If you’re a practicing Christian — and likely if you’re not — you’re familiar with the exhortation to give up something for the traditional season of penitence, which starts Wednesday (March 6) for Catholics and many Protestants and March 11 for Eastern Christians. The season commemorates the period leading up to Christ’s passion and resurrection, and for the approximately 1 in 4 Americans who observe it, Lent has been a time of sacrifice, prayer, fasting and reflection.

But, increasingly, the popular concept of Lent has been transformed into a kind of vaguely theistic detox. It’s a chance not to give up earthly pleasures but to exorcise toxins.

An article published last year in U.K. tabloid The Express, by way of example, provides readers with a handy listicle of the health benefits of giving up some of the most popular fasting targets, such as smoking or chocolate, before reminding them of the upsides of giving up sex. “Abstaining over Lent might help you reconnect with your partner in other ways,” the article reads, before adding: “However, you might be tempted to break this when you hear how many calories sex burns.”

Modern Lent has come to have more in common with Dry January – the viral sensation encouraging New Year’s resolvers to give up alcohol for a month – than with its ecclesiastic antecedents.

No wonder that it’s not just the faithful who are getting in on the Lenten action. A 2014 Barna study found that American millennials, famously less likely to be religious than their elders, were nonetheless more likely than the average American to fast for Lent. And though hard numbers are difficult to find, abundant anecdotal evidence supports the idea that a solid minority of those who observe Lent belong to the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.

A few years ago, Monica Potts wrote in “The Case for Secular Lent,” on Talking Points Memo, “I know tons of people who aren’t observant Christians but who nevertheless participate in some kind of targeted fast for the religious holiday meant to evoke Jesus’s 40 days and nights wandering through the wilderness.”

Potts, an avowedly “nonreligious” person, argues that her own regular Lenten observance is a vital part of her meditative practice. “We all need a time and space for quiet reflection,” she writes, “to consider what connects us, and to wish each other well. From ‘peace be with you’ to ‘namaste,’ there’s a universal desire to pull ourselves out of the everyday and set our intentions for a better life.” Lent, she wrote, is “a way to consider what gave me real pleasure.”

Diners fill their plates with a variety of fried fish at the Knights of Columbus Lenten fish fry in Bay City, Mich., in February 2008. Photo by Adrianne Bonafede/The Bay City Times

But is reflection all Lent is about? What does it mean to divorce the personal benefits of Lenten observance – even the spiritually attuned goals of increased mindfulness, a better life – from their divine referent? If we are not fasting to love God, but rather to optimize our own existence, are we not risking transforming a season of penitence into one of glorified diet culture?

In his 1978 book “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth,” Quaker theologian Richard J. Foster quotes a long-term practitioner of a particular Lenten fast who sees the discipline as necessary for a kind of surrender to God’s will, rather than a triumph of self-control.

“For the first time I was using the (fast) day to find God’s will for my life,” the person tells Foster. “Began to think about what it meant to surrender one’s life.” Foster’s anonymous Christian isn’t trying to exert willpower, but to explore what “will” really means in a world subject to God. This practitioner is precisely trying to focus less on the self, not more.

In giving up chocolate, say, or alcohol or sex (or even my planned abstention: social media), we’re not necessarily focusing on self-denial so much as self-improvement. We’re stealth-dieting, giving ourselves another opportunity to be better (and, if we’re thinner, fresher-faced and more productive to boot, then so be it).

While Lent is by no means as secularized as, say, Christmas or Easter, it’s worth thinking about the way in which the Lenten season has increasingly become, as Giles Fraser, the journalist and priest in the Church of England, put it in a 2014 article for The Guardian, “a second go at the new year resolutions that ran into the sand somewhere in mid-January.”

Are we using a season designed for contemplation of the holy to alleviate our own insecurities about our bodies, our work ethic, our personal health? And if so, is it time, as we’ve done with Christmas, to take stock of what the “true meaning” of Lent really is?