Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent. It falls earlier this year than most. The New Moon began this week, taking us into the Chinese Year of the Monkey. Happy New Year to you. As it coincides with the start of Lent this (Chinese) New Year might be a better time of year to make some changes than 1 January. If you made some New Year Resolutions and kept them up, well done. If not, you can start now. Eat less, drink less, exercise more: pick any or all of those three.
2016 was 40 days old on Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, “Fat Tuesday” to give a literal translation to the term “Mardi Gras”). The 40 days of Lent (plus Sundays, making it 46 days in all) will take us to Easter Sunday, 27 March. The Sundays in Lent complicate things a little these days. When I was a child Lent meant Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, with no exceptions. As I got older it seemed that St Patrick’s Day had become a semi-official exemption for anyone with Irish blood. If you’d given up alcohol, no worries, you could still go out and celebrate on 17 March, which always falls in Lent. And more recently I have heard priests pretty much condoning the idea of every Sunday in Lent becoming an acceptable day to ease up on your Lenten fasts. Sometimes there are even cake sales on Sundays in our local Parish Centre. They’re for charity, so it must be okay.
This might make Lent a less austere business than 40 years ago but it should make it easier to give things up, or make changes, during the Lenten season. Knowing that you can have a few pints (or some chocolate, or a few packets of crisps, or indeed all three) on 17 March breaks the whole thing up. And if you ease up on your fasting on Sundays then you only have to go through six days of abstinence at any one time. But whatever you do, you could follow the advice from today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 6: I): “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven.”
So, bearing that in mind, I won’t reveal what I plan to do during Lent but instead will reflect on what I have tried to do, and what I have failed to do, in previous years. The main beneficiary from these changes was me, in terms of better health and more peace of mind: Lenten changes are not always selfless acts.
One year, back in the 1990s I managed to give up swearing for the whole of Lent. It changed everything. I thought far more carefully about everything I said than ever before, or since. I was much more calm than I would otherwise have been for the whole 46 days. The following year I tried it again and didn’t get past the first week, cursing away at the state of the training room that I was supposed to use for a course beginning 15 minutes later. (And I didn’t even get past lunch-time this year.)
In the last decade I went through three successive years without wheat. It changed my whole approach to food, and to the way I pronounce wheat. I told people that I was thinking of, or trying to, “give up wheat”. A surprising number of friends and colleagues said, “Give up weed?” Maybe it said more about their lives than mine. I have never smoked anything, legal or otherwise, but have been in many rooms where nearly everybody else was at it. (Yes, I know, what a square.) Wheat and weed are not homophones but I now say wheat like a Scotsman: the “wh” sound is very different from the “w” sound.
And I have only once managed to give up coffee for the full season of Lent, the only time I could get past the two days of blinding headaches that affect me when I give up my two or three cups a day. No chance of that this year.
But whether we observe Lent or not we should still benefit from the change in the seasons: we start out in the depth of winter (today’s temperatures are only just above freezing here in West London) and, all being well, we’ll be eating our Easter eggs on a fine spring day, warmer, healthier, fitter, maybe even happier, than we are now. And even though Easter Sunday is in March, the sun will set at 7.26pm that day, rather than 5.05pm like today.