For Western Christianity, February 18 was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. For as long as I can remember, I have heard Roman Catholics and Protestants of many denominations talk about what they are giving up for Lent. I was reared in a Congregational Church, known now as the United Church of Christ. We knew what Lent was, and there was mention of Lent from the pulpit. But, as I remember, there was no emphasis on giving up anything. Certainly, my parents, who were very active in the Church, never talked about it with my brother and me. As an ordained clergyman, I have pretty much adhered to my childhood rearing, and I never stressed the need for, or the importance of, giving up things during Lent.
But this year I am changing that. I know of something that we all can and should give up--Roman Catholics, Eastern Christians, and every Protestant regardless of his or her denomination. But before I get to that, in order to have a better understanding of the Lenten season, let's just review some basics.
Lent is a time for today's Christians to undergo personal self-denial and sacrifice in commemoration of the absolutely horrible physical and emotional pain Jesus endured starting on a Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane. While in the Garden praying, he was betrayed by one of his original twelve disciples for twenty pieces of silver. From the Garden he was taken before two different judges, both of who refused to pass judgment, with the second judge letting a mob outside his chambers make the decision to crucify Jesus. Then, on the way to Golgotha, the traditional place for crucifixions, Jesus suffered the torment of verbal and physical abuses from the chanting crowds along the way. And, finally, he underwent the excruciating pain and humiliation of being crucified.
In the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches, Lent is the forty "weekday" period before Easter, starting with Ash Wednesday. There are, however, from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday forty-six days. So how do we account for the Lenten season being only forty days?
Christ's original disciples, who were Jewish, grew up with the Sabbath, the day of rest and worship, being Saturday, the seventh day of the week, since the account of creation in Genesis says that God rested on the seventh day. But the Resurrection of Jesus was on Sunday, the first day of the week, and the early Christians interrupted the Resurrection of Jesus as a "new" creation. So they changed the primary Christian day of rest and worship to Sunday. And starting with the original disciples, early Christians looked at every Sunday as a time to remember and celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, and fasting and other forms of self-denial were not permitted on Sundays. This held true for the six Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and they could not be counted as actual days of Lent.
And why is Lent "forty" days? "Forty" has long had spiritual significance for Jews and Christians in regard to preparation. Moses was with God for forty days and nights on Mount Sinai in preparation for receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). But the primary focus for Lent is on: Matthew 4:1-2, where Jesus is portrayed as fasting for "forty" days and nights; Mark 1:12-13, depicting Jesus as being led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for "forty" days; and Luke 4:1-2, telling of Jesus being led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to fast and to be tempted by the devil for "forty" days. Taking into consideration how Jesus prepared for his ministry, "forty" was determined to be the number of days his followers should use in preparing for Easter.
And now, finally to my proposal of what all of us could and should give up during the Lenten Season. In recent years, the emphasis on giving up something during Lent has gradually been changing to focusing on positive behavioral changes. My proposal for the Lenten season is in keeping with this new trend.
I propose giving up the practice of focusing on the faults of other people and, instead, looking for their good qualities.
I am not suggesting that we just suppose that everyone around us can be trusted and we need not worry about our personal safety or the security of personal belongings. That would be foolish. I am referring to our fascination with reading, hearing, and talking about the bad, the ugly, the unsavory.
All newscasts that I am aware of start out with murders, thefts, sexual abuses, ISIS executions, fires, wrecks, divorces of famous people, and other sad situations. In most newspapers, the lead stories usually deal with shocking and tragic events. As the old newsroom saying goes, "If it bleeds, it leads." But it doesn't have to be that way. My proposal for Lent is that we have a major change in attitude.
How many times at the local coffee shop do we overhear people say: "Just wait until I tell you about the most wonderful thing that happened to me this morning"; or "I'm so excited about the extraordinary way our boss treats us"; or "Wait until I tell you about the superb way our neighbor treats his wife"; or "Our neighbors have the most well-behaved teenagers"; or "My husband does the most marvelous things for me"; or "The government is being so careful with how it spends our tax dollars"; and so forth. We seldom hear comments like that. Instead, we hear about the immoral, unfortunate, and sad things.
But regardless of how miserable people can be, it is usually possible to find some good in them. The same holds true with tragic events: usually we can find something good to come out of them.
By giving up our inclination to find fault with others, perhaps other people will reciprocate by treating us in the same way. That could make all of us a lot happier and life more productive. Let's all of us--Christians of all varieties--give it a try during this Lenten Season. And it wouldn't hurt for nonbelievers to join in.
For those of you who have an aversion to being positive, I refer you to Confucius (551 BC-479 BC), the Chinese philosopher, teacher, and political figure remembered for his popular statements of principle. Confucius says: "When you have faults, do not be afraid to abandon them."