Lent — A time to purify body and soul
By Shereen Ali Sunday, February 17 2013
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Archbishop Joseph Harris makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of a woman during Ash Wednesday midday Mass at the Roman Catholic Church on Harri...
Christians have been in Trinidad for a very long time. In 1513, two Spanish Dominican priests, Francisco Cordova and Juan Garces, arrived, becoming the first Christian missionaries. They befriended the local Amerindians. Later, according to research by amateur historian Gerard Besson, a Spanish ship visited Trinidad, and kidnapped some Amerindians, selling them into slavery in Santo Domingo. The two priests, according to Besson, were upset, and tried to lobby the authorities to free the indigenous people; but the kidnapped Amerindian people were never returned.
After eight months of waiting for the return of their kin, some Amerindians in Trinidad lost patience and put the Spanish friars to death. The two friars became the first Christian martyrs in Trinidad. And over the next three centuries, Christian beliefs, including the annual observance of Lent, became established in the island as the faith of the colonisers.
Most Trinidadians today identify as either Christian or Hindu. Christians comprise the majority, at 57.6 percent of the population (according to the CIA World Factbook, based on 2000 TT census data). The second largest group is Hindu, who comprise 22.5 percent of the population; Muslims account for 5.8 percent, 10.8 percent believe in “other” beliefs, and 3.3 percent of people here have an unspecified faith, or no religion.
Of the 57.6 percent who are Christians, most — 26 percent — are Roman Catholic; 7.8 percent are Anglicans; 7.2 percent are Baptists; 6.8 percent are Pentecostals; and 4 percent are Seventh-Day Adventists (source: online CIA factbook). Most Christian faiths observe Lent and Easter. Indeed, Easter is one of the most important events in the Christian calendar. Why do Christians in Trinidad celebrate Easter? And what is the real purpose of Lent, the 40-day period preceding Easter? To understand this, we need to look at the importance of Jesus to Christians.
Jesus, born around 6 to 4 BC in Galilee, Judea, is a central figure for Christians, who believe him to be a spiritual being with a deep concern for peace and love in the world. Scholars tell us that Jesus (or Joshua/Isa/Yesua) grew up in a Jewish culture ruled by the Roman Empire. As a young man in his 30s, he became very popular amongst both his Jewish kinfolk in Judea and among other nationalities, for his ability to communicate spiritual teachings effectively through simple stories. He has been described as a charismatic speaker, a healer, a philosopher and a social reformer. Christians also believe him to be an incarnation of God the Son, and the “anointed one” (the “Christ”). Jews, however, reject the idea of Jesus as God, while Muslims believe Jesus was a messenger of God but not. God himself, just a mortal, very spiritual human being. Jesus, according to the biblical Gospels, was eventually killed by Roman rulers for alleged crimes of treason, on charges of claiming to be “King of the Jews” (around 30AD to 36 AD, scholars estimate). In the biblical accounts, Jesus did not defend himself.
Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead to a new life on Easter Sunday (Resurrection Day) a few days after his public execution. As a matter of faith, Christians celebrate this belief in the mystery of self-sacrifice, death and rebirth at Easter time. The Christian period of Lent connects the self-sacrifice of Jesus to smaller-scale personal sacrifices in believers’ daily lives.
Lent is a time of abstinence and penance for Christians, to help purify the body and soul. It lasts for 40 days, from Ash Wednesday to the Thursday before Easter.”
According to Pope Benedict XVI, who is both political head of the Vatican City State in Rome and religious head of the Catholic Church, Lent is “a pilgrimage of repentance, conversion and renewal.” Pope Benedict explains his beliefs on the Vatican website:
“The Church’s Lenten discipline is meant to help deepen our life of faith…we may draw nearer to the Lord … and conquer the desert of our spiritual aridity, selfishness and materialism.”
The 40-day period of Lent echoes the 40 days during which Jesus, as a younger man, is said to have fought temptation from the Devil and fasted in the desert before the start of his public preaching ministry from 27 - 30 AD. So Lent can have several meanings: it reminds Christians of the value of sacrifice, reflection and soul-searching, as well as marking the period before resurrection — whether a physical rebirth of life from a deathly state, or a personal, symbolic rebirth from an unaware, empty life to a life of more meaning and understanding.
During Lent, Orthodox Christians pray, do penance, repent, give to the poor, and deny their appetites. In the early Church before the 14th century, Lent in Europe was observed with a “Black Fast” of strictly no more than one meal a day after sunset, with no meat, dairy, oil or wine. Contemporary Christians have adapted the idea of abstinence, using temporary or selective fasting, or giving up non-food items or pleasurable habits.
Gloria Noriega, a Roman Catholic woman in her early fifties based in Maracas, St Joseph, Trinidad, has fasted for Lent for the past ten years. She is fasting again this year. She says, “I eat no meat for the entire 40 days of Lent. During this time, I also fast for the whole day, eating a meal before sunrise, and then another meal after sunset. I find it relaxes me. I can concentrate better. It makes it easier for me to pray.”
Tahira Boos, a Roman Catholic convert since 1986, based in Diego Martin, also observes Lent. In her mid-seventies, she shares, “I used to fast, but not so much now. For Lent I go to Mass. I go to Church, and take part in retreats. I pray more, and give to the poor more. And for Lent I give up little things, like sweets or computer games, and go do other things instead, like clean a cupboard. I try to do more uplifting things. I find Lent helps to cleanse you, and makes you feel good.”
Colin Roberts, an Anglican engineer from Jamaica, says he does not fast for Lent because he already tries to abstain from many unhealthy foods and habits throughout the year, as a normal part of his life. He says: “I gave up cigarettes ten years ago. And some months ago, I gave up rich fatty foods, flour and alcohol. The only thing left to give up is sex!”
There are parallels between the fasting of Christian Lent and other faiths. The Bahais fast during March, to aid spiritual growth; the Vinaya Buddhists fast everyday after the noon meal, to aid meditation and to promote routine good health; Protestants believe in optional fasting, as a choice rather than an obligation; Jews, like Christians, fast as a means of repentance, especially during Yom Kippur (their Day of Atonement — a 25-hour period of total fasting and intense prayer); and for Hindus, fasting is an integral part of life, often practised for personal reasons or during the nine days of Navratri, just before Divali, when the Divine Mother is worshipped.
In Islam, fasting for the month of Ramadan is obligatory, to promote humility, self-control, God-awareness, and truthfulness. Ramadan fasting aims to boost self-discipline and purification, whereas Lent fasting focuses more on atoning for sins. In all of Trinidad’s current major faiths, however - Christianity, Hinduism and Islam — fasting is believed to help spiritual concentration. As the Christian priest Father Elias Mallon says (on the www.patheos.com website):
“Fasting is closely connected to prayer and contemplation. It is the setting aside of the ordinary that allows the believer to focus on the transcendent.”