Goodness knows, there are many advantages to having English as one’s first language, but there are also some disadvantages. An example of a disadvantage is the word for the religious period of time we are in right now: Lent. English speaking Christians use “Lent” for the period of time between Ash Wednesday and Easter, which is roughly 40 days.
Unfortunately, our word Lent totally obscures the original name for this period in the Church calendar as reflected in the original languages of Christianity: Greek and Latin. In Greek, Latin, and in all the living Romance languages spoken around the world today the word for Lent is always a variation of “Quadragesima” (Fortieth): “Quaresima” in Italian, “Cuaresma” in Spanish, “Careme” in French, etc. In German the word for Lent is “Fastenzeit” which means fasting — and this is quite a bit more informative and helpful than the English “Lent.”
The origin of this special period of time was to specifically set aside a period of 40 days, leading up to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, as a period of time — a holy pause, as it were — for reflection, penance, fasting, repentance and self-denial. This was/is to be something of value to the spiritual and psychological well being of the individual and also of the community at large. Even if one doesn’t care to be a Christian, one has to admit that setting aside forty days a year for this type of personal and communal contemplation is a pretty good idea.
Why 40 days? That’s something very interesting and full of symbolism. The number 40 appears numerous times in the Bible, in both Hebrew and Greek Scripture: The flood of Noah lasted for 40 days; Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days each in preparation for their special functions; the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years; Ezekiel laid on his right side for 40 days to ‘bear the iniquity’ on Judea’s sins; and there are other examples. For whatever reason, the number 40 in our Judeo-Christian tradition is, at least symbolically, associated with defining a period of time for expurgation and expiation. In being reminded of Lent’s original name, “Fortieth.” We call to mind this grand tradition of the ‘Holy Pause,’ which culminates in Holy Week.
So — here we are in the midst of the Holy Pause of the 40 days of Lent and, on account of the coronavirus, we are being asked by our government, in no uncertain terms, to step back, pause, stay home, practice social distancing, exercise self-denial, act for the welfare of others, etc. We are to do a whole bunch of things that are amazingly similar to old fashioned Lenten practice.
All of a sudden we have time on our hands. In our high stress world where ‘time is money’ and hardly anybody has enough time for anything, suddenly WE HAVE TIME. We have time to think, to reflect, to put life on pause. Let’s not waste this opportunity.
In addition to having time to think, we are being reminded of our own mortality. On this past Ash Wednesday, as we faced our priest and he placed the black ash cross on our foreheads, he said, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” This year, in addition, we find ourselves face to face with a virus that is a mortal threat to ourselves, our family, and our friends. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes indeed.
The video of our lives has been put on pause. It’s time to look away from our screens and look at ourselves and each other. It’s time to think. We are being forced to think about our lives, our choices, and our communities perhaps like we’ve never been forced to before. I know that one of the things I have thought of is the sad fact that many who have been laid off will not have jobs to go back to when this Pause is over. And along those lines, since so many (50%) have access to health insurance via their employment, they are also facing loss of their health insurance during a pandemic (See “Millions of Americans are about to lose their health insurance in a pandemic” by Wendell Potter, The Guardian, 27 March 2020). Even worse than that, I think about the over 40 million Americans who don’t have health insurance at all.
Will life go back to what it was before?
Do we even want it to go back to what it was before?
Maybe, just maybe, this Pause will become a watershed moment for America as a nation and for Americans as individuals. Many social commentators, better informed and better spoken than I, have pointed out that our American system depends upon millions and millions of people being just too darn busy to notice the inherent unfairness and unhealthiness built into our “American way of life” (See for example Juliet Schor’s now classic “The Overworked American,” 1991). But who has time to really think about it?
Well, we have time now.
And these “Forty Days” of Pause may well turn into three or six months of Pause. Nobody knows at this stage.
Another thing I, for my part, am thinking about and praying for is that perhaps we as a nation will stop being so focused on “Mammon”, on productivity and profitability at all cost, and become more focused on “Godly things” such as quality of life, happiness of spirit and well being of community. As the rabbi from Nazareth said, “You cannot serve God and mammon; no man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24).
Lent is a time to think about our sins. One of America’s greatest sins of late is heartlessness—an institutional unwillingness to practice empathy, build bridges and foster community.
It’s sad to say, but it may take a pandemic to snap us out of this, or at least start on our way to snapping out of this Corona and Lent might help us think straight, and we need all the help we can get. That’s a Lenten meditation worth thinking about.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.