The Christian season of lent has just started – a time with its own discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, meant to hone the soul and develop a recognition of the deeper things in life. It’s a time of fasting but the Christian fast always seems so pale in comparison to Ramadan when Muslims fast from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset. This takes a lot of commitment particularly when it happens during the summer months in a country like Scotland where the hours of daylight are long and the hours of darkness short. Of course the opposite happens in winter with its short days and long nights. The Baha’is too have a similar fast but their’s always takes place at the same time each year. According to the Baha’i calendar this takes place in the month of ‘Ala. It lasts nineteen days and according to our calendar it begins on 2nd March ending with the New Year Feast on the 21st March, the evening of the equinox.
Christians don’t fast in this way and many people are creative about how they observe the season. Often there will be extra prayer but also a fasting from aspects of life that have become obsessive and hinder our freedom, sometimes without us realising it. So in this day and age people might fast from using Facebook or social media, from watching television, from drinking alcohol, eating chocolate, going to the cinema, buying new clothes, as well as fasting from that critical attitude or biting remark. Attempts to do this can expose our cravings and disciplining self to forego them can lead to an inner freedom where we are in control of our activities and habits and not them in control of us. It’s also possible to use lent to use our time for something constructive that we have always wanted to do – read more for example. Sometimes this needs quite a lot of discipline as I suppose most of us can get caught up in that ubiquitous ‘ round to it’ that we never get round to! I like the idea of setting aside time to practice a new skill. In the past I’ve taught myself to juggle and touch type during lent and it was a great experience of resurrection when I had achieved a new skill by Easter. The problem is that the skill soon disappears if you don’t keep practising it so this lent I’m going to try to brush up on my Tai Chi form which I once knew but have now forgotten – and I’m determined to keep practising it in the time after Easter.
The Christian fast of lent used to be much stricter – no butter or eggs which had to be used up before Lent began – hence Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday , translated into French as Mardi Gras, celebrated as a festival in different ways all over the world. There’s a certain craziness about Mardi Gras festivals – almost as though it’s important to really enjoy oneself and let one’s hair down before the sombreness of lent which traditionally began with people being shriven i.e. asking forgiveness of their sins (hence the name Shrove Tuesday) and being reminded on Ash Wednesday itself that we are in fact all dust and into dust we shall all return – something that still happens in the Catholic traditions.
The idea of carnival before more sombre religious seasons and festivals is not limited to Christianity. At the end of this month the Jewish community will be celebrating the festival of Purim and recently I read an interesting article which compared Mardi Gras and Purim – both of them come a month before the solemn festivals of Easter and Passover; both of them are marked by excess, the wearing of costumes, the rejection of the usual social norms. They’re spring festivals, carnivals which give expression to new life and possibilities and while they mark a time of preparation for festivals which are much more serious they also remind us that religion is not all about solemnity but has a place for the craziness and exuberance which is so much part of human nature.