(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been reflecting on the dates of religious events, and finds the penitential season of Lent quite appropriate.
(Lange) I got a brief e-mail today: “A flock of blackbirds swooped down to my feeders this noon. Among them were several Redwings.” That little note changed the tenor of the whole day.
The various rituals, myths, regulations, and saints of most religions have never been favorites of mine. Yet I acknowledge a certain genius in the scheduling of religious events: a gift for metaphor and a sort of ecclesiastical jujitsu that uses the momentum of preexisting phenomena to convert them into observations with spiritual significance.
The obvious example is Christmas. Nobody knows the date of Christ’s birth. But it’s one of the most important events in Christian history: the lighting of a candle in a dark world. What better time to celebrate it than at the winter solstice? The solstice was already a festival of rekindled light for everyone from Druids and Scandinavians to Romans and Jews.
The date of Easter was easier to determine, as it was connected to the Feast of the Passover. But there’s still a bit of the ancient in the formula: “…the first Sunday after the full moon that falls on or after March 21. It cannot occur before March 22 or after April 25.”
Just as Christmas celebrates new light, Easter celebrates new life. A perfect time to celebrate Easter. But where did Lent come from, with its 40 days of fasting and penitence? Who needs it? Turns out that there was a sort of natural Lent, anyway, that existed before the early church. The term comes from the Old English lengten, meaning “spring” and referring to lengthening days. In those days the verb for “to die” was in many languages the same as the verb for “to starve.” Starvation was the most common cause of death. In early spring, the food and fodder stored the previous fall were gone or almost gone. Often it must have seemed to the suffering people that they were being punished by the gods. That situation was a fertile field in which to plant the seeds of ritualized fasting and penitence. These provided perspective and meaning to something that was already happening, anyway. There’s nothing like fasting to sharpen the senses.
For either Easter, celebrating a miraculous resurrection, or eastre, the pagan celebration of equally miraculous vernal life – I can hardly wait! But the message of Lent is we’re going to have to.
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.