Lent is a festival that exists in a context of tradition, and the cycle of the seasons. For our ancestors, Shrove Tuesday was the time when you used up the last of the fat, flour and eggs, making the pancakes. That which had been stored from the previous year would tend to run out somewhere around now, while new resources would not yet be reliably available. The thin weeks that were an inevitable consequence, became Lent. Making a virtue out of necessity, and a spiritual experience out of the hard times is a good, pragmatic response. It wasn’t a case of giving up one luxury of choice, it was a case of having very little to live on.
With our complex supply chains and supermarkets, the majority of us do not expect to feel the pinch at this time of year. We are disconnected from the cycles of the land. A Pagan might therefore consider joining in with Lent in order to connect with their ancestors, and to re-connect with an agricultural wheel that wasn’t persistently bountiful. Of course if you aren’t in Europe, you may have a wildly different seasonal situation to consider, and that should be taken into account.
For many, the quarterly power bills came out over the last few weeks. Winter is the time we need most light and heating. If you were a bit marginal with the money, it may well be that the coming of the winter bill creates a need to cut back and save money in the coming months. Modern fuel poverty may well re-invent Lent as a practical necessity for some.
When I was a child, back in the eighties, giving up something for Lent was common in the community around me. However, I did not see much of it as a spiritual practice. Competitive self-denial, self-aggrandisement through a personal martyrdom where the difficulty of the sacrifice was much emphasised… when you have a great deal, giving up some small thing is not as difficult or as noble as we might like to imagine. It’s also a very long way from genuine privation.
If you are thinking about Lent at all, it is worth sparing a thought for the many who are fasting and doing without luxuries. Not the people who do it by choice, but the ones so knocked down by life that they now depend on food from foodbanks. More specifically, the kind of food you can heat with water from a kettle, because they have no money for gas or electricity. For many, the experience of fasting and abstinence is not sought, or used for spiritual purposes. It is a harsh reality, and it will not magically end when the Easter eggs hit the shops.
To give up one chosen thing for Lent, as a personal exercise, seems highly suspect in this context. If you are going to make some kind of sacrifice, do it for the good of someone else who is in need. Giving your luxury foodstuffs to a foodbank for the month might be a lot more meaningful than just not buying them. I’m seeing online people taking this as a prompt to switch over to fair trade goods, or to bring other ethical considerations to their shopping.
Fasting as a practice was common for ancestors in many traditions across the globe. It has a very different feel and context when you also know what it means to give up and cut back out of necessity. We don’t have a good collective sense of the difference between necessity and luxury, nor much collective sense of what it means to lack for necessities. I think this lack of awareness contributes to our collective lack of action and compassion over people in abject poverty. Too many of us have no idea what that means, and when you look at undertaking it that way, fasting for Lent could be a very productive cultural activity indeed.