"The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. Its institutional purpose is heightened in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the tradition and events of the New Testament beginning on Friday of Sorrows, further climaxing on Jesus' crucifixion on Good Friday, which ultimately culminates in the joyful celebration on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ."
Yeah, that's about right. What has of course percolated through to the less knowledgeable or devout layer of people is that we have to give something up for 40 days, something we like, we need to suffer. That's all fine and good on the surface, but doesn't actually tell us why. Why do we need to give up a luxury? What's the point? How does my giving up chocolate or expensive entertainments help me get ready for Easter?
Self denial in conjunction with fasting, and self examination allows us the intellectual space to review ourselves and our life and habits. It allows us to see what it is we can do to be better persons in the long run. Jews and Muslims have not unsimilar traditions with precisely the same goals. Lets examine the principal actions asked of every Christian during this period.
Penance: Or the confession of sin, is the act of realization that maybe some of our actions have been bad, harmful or selfish. Jesus and pretty much every other prophet who ever came along has told us not to be shmucks, putzes and self centred egomaniacs to the detriment of everybody else and everything around us. We are individual parts of a whole and our harmonious participation is predicated on the notion that we accept that we are not always the centre of the universe. To do this, we need a time to consider the year that was, the actions we did, good bad or indifferent. If the giving up of ostentatious displays and a few luxuries brings us back to the level of the humblest among us, then we are all the more open to the exercise of self examination. Here is a short and hardly axhaustive list of simple questions to ask yourself.
1- Have I been a help or a hindrance to those around me?
2- Have I made the most of my opportunities, especially those that came out of the blue and those that came after much struggle?
3- How aware am I of the impact of my actions on those closest to me and to my general surroundings?
4- Have I maximized my talents, education and time, life has thus far offered me?
5- Have I made myself, my talents and resources available to those who needed them.
Repentance: Having had a good long look at one's self, we have established a number of things we may have been guilty of. And by guilty I don't necessarily mean things like lying and cheating, tho that does count, I mean the subtler sins of waste, egocentrism, self indulgent pity and other assorted reasons why you can't do what you know is good for you and for others. This step is particularly important as you're going to do that thing you failed utterly to do at New Year's.... resolve to avoid said bad behaviour and find a different and better path to follow. AND MEAN IT. By the way, did you make a list of people you wronged? Yup, that's the next step,
Atonement: In plain English it means saying you're sorry, you won't do it again and you need to find a way to the best of your ability to tell people this. If this sounds like something out of AA, you're not wrong. And saying you're sorry sometimes isn't enough, you need to do an act of contrition or reparation. A recent example of this is Csanad Szegedi a former right wing nationalist Hungarian politician who upon discovering he was Jewish, went into a deep period of reflection and is now still sitting but as an independent that stands for human rights and social equality. He will spend the rest of his life atoning for his previous life, but for him that is the price he has to pay for having been such a terrible person before.
Now here is the tricky bit for some. Forgiveness: Forgiveness for sins against ourselves and dealing with those who are too bitter and angry at us for the sins we committed against them. You cannot allow those who won't forgive you to be the reason you don't follow through, sometimes what you did to them was just too damaging, you will make new friends and a new life, even if you have to bear the consequences of some of your actions for the rest of your life. And if somebody has wronged you and made the effort to apologize and really mean it; you have a responsibility to try, to dig down in yourself and forgive them, never forget, but forgive and wipe the slate clean. As I said, it's not easy, if it were, everybody would be doing it.
Alms giving and good deeds: Mitzvah the Jews call it. The art of sharing yourself, your talent and your wealth with those who need it most for nothing but the knowledge that you made their life better. A true mitzvah does not ask for a receipt or testimonial dinner. All good deeds be they large or small, eventually as the saying goes, get repaid ten fold. Some of us will get a box of chocolates or the occasional tray of biscuits, others will get a medal or knighthood in the fullness of time, but most of us will be rewarded at most by a smile and a polite thank you, sometimes not even that. And yet, that is not a reason to not do it. Each example of such a good deed that makes you a mensch ( really good person) without leading you necessarily to sainthood either, makes you a living embodiment of what every prophet and holy man and woman ever asked of humanity.....Don't be A SHMUCK. At the very least, if somebody has to choose how to be and they have you and some putz as an example, they will have the wisdom to be you, because you were nice to them, because somebody was nice to you.
What exactly is defined as a good deed then you ask? It could be the simple act of charity, the act of taking your time and spending it with somebody who is lonely, perhaps seeing a friend who is themselves encumbered with problems not of their own making and just not dealing with them due to lack of resources or strength and saying , " Today I'll be here to help you, and if can, I'll do it next week too." Charity can sometimes be a balm on the conscience of the comfortable and the well off that excuses them from thinking about the connections of actions and results. Perhaps if you give to a charity, ask yourself why the people or things are in such dire need. What can you do to reverse the situation permanently. In so doing you may find that the simple act of giving money or spare food becomes just the opening gambit. Here is a site that provides a wonderful way to Do Lent Generously.
Volunteering is part of charity, it is the self sacrifice of your leisure time away from x factor and other such things designed to numb you from the reality around you. The volunteer sector is more and more pressurized to provide services that governments have abdicated, add this on top of the usual sports, scouts, guides, gardening, OAP activities etc... that depend on an ever shrinking pool of people, and you can see how even a few hours you previously spent playing World of Warcraft or voting in bread and circuses talent shows on telly can alleviate a bit of the pressure. I would like to mention and praise here a group of particularly devoted Star Trek fans of the NE of England who take any opportunity to make a noise in Klingon or even Dalek if it means a good local charity gets a bit of help. Quark's Tyne bar, always ready to serve the Klingon Empire, The Federation and any cause that doesn't mind people eating Rokeg Blood Pie or accusing them of being a P'Tok.
While Lent is all of the things you've just read, it is first and foremost a time of reflection about yourself and your place in the world. How you can best contribute to and share it's bounty with others. Being a better person is the reason why you give up chocolate for 40 days. It's about giving your soul and your body a chance to heal and maybe change for the better. There is no perfect way of doing this, but if you follow even a part of the observance, even if it's just talking to your G-d, reading from the texts that you claim to inspire your more altruistic self, or just reaching out to those around you and trying to understand them and the person you could be if you just tried, you have made a road map for yourself to follow until next year, when it starts all over again.
Muslims and Jews reading this will find much familiar to them and I would hope it goes a long way in letting them know that where it matters most, we are all praying to the same G-d. For my humanist and atheist friends, I hope you take from this an understanding of what it truly means to us to be what we are and to respect us for that. This period of reflection we travel is something every person can do regardless of faith, regardless if they even believe in a higher power. Make the effort in your own way and you'll be the better for it, in fact we all will.