In the Christian calendar, today marks Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the observance of Lent. It is the first day of an extended period of prayer, sacrifice and charity.
When I was young, and before I started going to church on a regular basis, I thought of Lent as a ritual that was specific to the Catholic Church.
Like so much about what I thought I knew about Christianity, I was in error.
I have since learned that Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans as well as some Baptists and other denominations observe Lent or at least make acknowledgement of its appearance in the liturgical year.
“Lent” is a word that came into use during the Middle Ages when church services began to be held in the everyday language of the common people. It comes from the Old English word for “spring,” and this meaning is derived from an even older German root for “long” because spring is when the days are noticeably longer.
“Quadragesima” was the Latin word for this solemn observance in the centuries before “Lent” became common. It is translated as the 40 days before Easter, which is the traditional length of the Lenten period.
However, most western denominations don’t count Sundays when they calculate the total number, so, really, there are more than 40 days in the “40 days” of Lent.
The number 40 crops up in many places throughout in the Bible. To point out just three: in the Old Testament Noah was in the Ark for 40 days; Moses spent forty days on Mount. Sinai receiving the Commandments; and the Hebrew people wandered for 40 years in the wilderness.
The number 40 also figures in the New Testament as when Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness.
Back in my pre-church days, the act of fasting was what I assumed Lent was all about, but again, there is more to it than that.
Fasting is only one of three practices that are traditionally given special emphasis during Lent, the other two being prayer and almsgiving.
Fasting in ancient times was more severe than what we moderns do today. In the first part of the Christian era people abstained from eating anything until evening while others ate just one meal a day.
When they did eat, they avoided animal products except for possibly fish. These days, people often forgo some luxury or minor vice such as soft drinks or chocolate.
I read recently that many people are considering giving up Facebook for Lent. That would be quite a sacrifice for some people I know.
The idea of fasting and abstinence, of sacrificing food, objects or desires for a period of days or weeks, may seem foreign to those of us living in a culture where instant gratification and a sense of entitlement are almost constitutional rights.
However, many (most?) religions teach that a period of abstinence from food or things has the spiritual benefit of bringing one closer to God.
In addition, giving up something for Lent requires self-discipline, which is a character quality we could all use more of.
Such self-discipline illustrates to those of us who pride ourselves on our independence just how dependent we are on certain things.
These past few years I have chosen to go without certain things during Lent, and I will do so again this year.
It has not always been easy, but then again, how many truly important things in life are?
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.