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LENT

LENT. The word “Lent” is derived from Old English lencten, meaning ‘spring’, the lengthening of days after winter is over. This was a period of spring fasting known in Old English as Lencten-Fasten, or in its abbreviated form, as Lencten or Lent. The ecclesiastical name for this once mandatory period of fasting is the Quadragesimal Fast, or the fast of the Forty Days, in imitation of the forty days of fasting performed by Jesus in the wilder- ness.

Like other institutions of Christianity, Lent took time to evolve into its full medieval form. Fasting was practiced in the early Christian Church and was viewed as an aid to prayer. Credence was given to the practice by a statement of Jesus: “When the bridegroom shall be taken from them, then shall they fast” (Matthew 9:15). What was called “half-fasting” was practiced very early on Wednesdays and particularly on Fridays to com- memorate the passion or crucifixion of Christ. The Fri- day fast, as well as the Lenten fast, is still practiced by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and some Protestants.

Historically, the forty-day fast reaches back to the second century C.E., although forty days were not always required. By the fourth and fifth centuries, the fasting took place on thirty-six days representing the six weeks prior to Easter, minus six Sundays since Sundays were not fast days. Later, four extra days were added to make forty: Ash Wednesday and the three days following it.

The medieval Catholic Church in general took a middle ground on fasting. Those who put too high a value on the merit of fasting were rebuked with the words of St. Paul: “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.” Some extremist heretical groups, such as the Montanists in the second century, fasted frequently on bread, water, and salt.

Abstinence involves refraining from certain foods, meat in the case of Lent, and indeed, during the Middle Ages, all animal products, including butter, lard for cook- ing, and eggs. Many cookery books contained special recipes designed to make use of non-animal ingredients, such as olive oil, almond milk, and dried fruit. But fast- ing also refers to the number and fullness of the meals one partakes of on fast days. Both practices are subsumed under penance or penitence, which involves contrition and reparation for sin in human life. Since Vatican II, the rules of Lenten fasting for Roman Catholics have been modified, but earlier they were quite elaborate and even published in newspapers so that the guidelines would be clearly set forth. The following regulations were in force during the 1950s.

Everyone over the age of seven was to observe the Roman Catholic Lent with complete abstinence on all Fridays, Ash Wednesday, and Holy Saturday Morning. During these times, meat and soup, or gravy made from meat, could not be used. During days of partial absti-

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FOOD AND CULTURE

nence, which included the Saturdays in Lent (except the last one), meat and soup, or gravy made from soup, could be taken only once a day during the main meal. For those over twenty-one and under fifty-nine, only one full meal per day was allowed during the weekdays of Lent. Other meatless meals were allowed only to maintain strength, but could not equal another full meal. Eating between meals was not permitted, except for liquids, but those people whose health or ability to work were seriously af- fected by fasting could be excused from the regimen. Acts of charity and of self-denial (such as abstaining from al- coholic drinks and amusements) and daily attendance at mass were encouraged.

In 1966, following Vatican II, Pope Paul VI issued his “Apostolic Constitution on Penance” (Poenitemini), which gave present shape to the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of abstinence. This papal clarification modified the elaborate rules for Lent. Still, all Roman Catholics between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine were required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Fri- day. Everyone over the age of fourteen had to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fri- days during Lent. Fasting was defined as taking only one meal per day, but with smaller meals permitted. Absti- nence for Roman Catholics does not now include meat juices, broths, consommés, soups made or flavored with meat, meat-based gravies or sauces, margarine or lard. Even bacon drippings poured over salads and meat by- products such as gelatin are now allowed. With the per- mission of the Episcopal Conference, many American Roman Catholics have substituted other forms of penance, such as works of charity or acts of piety, for the other meatless Fridays during the year.

By contrast, Orthodox Christians abstain from all meat products during most days of the Great Lent, and also from fish and animal products—lard, milk, butter, cheese, and eggs—together with wine and oil during Holy Week. The rigor and austerity of Orthodox fasting remains unchanged and follows the proscriptions of the early Church and its ecumenical councils. For the Or- thodox, there are four main periods of fasting during the year: the Great Fast (Lent), the Fast of the Apostles (start- ing eight days after Pentecost), the Assumption Fast (from 1 to 14 August), and the Christmas Fast (from 15 November to 24 December). There are also a number of lesser fasts that fall outside the Lenten period.

Protestant attitudes to Lent range from complete re- jection by denominations of Puritan and Pietist origin, to a rather full acceptance by Anglicans and Lutherans, who retain many practices similar to those of Catholi- cism. Even the Church of the Brethren, which in its sec- tarian, separatist beginnings opposed any celebration of the liturgical year, in the late twentieth century began, in some of its congregations, to hold special services on Ash Wednesday and the Sundays of Lent. Such services high- light repentance and prayer, but there are no special Lenten restrictions on food. There has been a movement

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