Since Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church is rich in tradition of fasting and prayer, comments about the various fasts often appear on various internet forums and online exchanges between Church members. The word ‘lent’ is often seen in these communications as well. There were postings about ‘Advent Lent’ and ‘25-day Lent’ three months ago and there have been various comments about ‘Nineveh Lent’ and ‘3-day Lent’ lately. A Church calendar attached to a recent SGOS posting showed, in addition to above, ‘13-day Lent’, ‘15-day Lent’ and ‘50-day Lent’. While it is true that lent is associated with fasting, it is wrong to assume that ‘lent’ and ‘fast’ mean the same and may be used interchangeably.
As we continue to increase information exchange over the internet, it so happens that we are led to use English as the language for this communication. In this predicament we may sometimes use, perhaps inadvertently, some words or terminology which we may think is correct, but convey the wrong meaning. We are used to saying ‘25 nompu’, ‘3 nompu’, ‘50 nompu’, etc. in Malayalam. Possibly because we have seen ‘50 nompu’ being referred to in English usage as ‘Lent’ or Lenten period, we may have gotten to think that ‘lent’ is the same as ‘nompu’. English equivalent for the Malayalam word ‘nompu’ appears to be ‘fast’. Our Lord fasted for forty days in the desert. He did not observe a ‘40-day lent’!
One can look up the meaning or definition of the word ‘lent’ in any English language dictionary or encyclopedia. There are a few popular online dictionaries, such as merriam-webster.com, learnersdictionary.com, and wikipedia.org. A rather lengthy but informative excerpt from the last source (wikipedia.org) is given below:
“Lent in the Christian tradition, is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer – through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial – for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Conventionally, it is described as being forty days long, though different denominations calculate the forty days differently. The forty days represent the time that, according to the Bible, Jesus spent in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry, where he endured temptation by Satan.
This practice was virtually universal in Christendom until the Protestant Reformation. Some Protestant churches do not observe Lent, but many, such as Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans, do.”
For the roots and origin of the word ‘lent’ Wikipedia has this:
“In Latin the term quadragesima (translation of the original Greek tessarakoste, the ‘fortieth day’ before Easter) is used. This nomenclature is preserved in Roman, Slavic and Celtic languages (for example, Spanish cuaresma, Portuguese quaresma, French carême, Italian quaresima, Croatian korizma, Irish Carghas, and Welsh Crawys).
In the late Middle Ages, as sermons began to be given in the vernacular instead of Latin, the English word lent was adopted. This word initially simply meant spring (as in German language Lenz and Dutch lente) and derives from the Germanic root for long because in the spring the days visibly lengthen”.
Online merriam-webster.com shows this for Definition of LENT:
“the 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter observed by the Roman Catholic, Eastern, and some Protestant churches as a period of penitence and fasting”. The same resource also has this for Origin of LENT: “Middle English lente springtime, Lent, from Old English lencten; akin to Old High German lenzin spring. First Known Use: 13th century.”
So, it is clear that lent is a fasting period associated with a particular period of the year (springtime) and a particular Church calendar event (Easter). The word clearly has limited meaning, was adopted for convenience, and got into use much later in the history of the Christian Church. Although ‘lent’ is indeed a fasting period, every fasting period is not a ‘Lenten’ period. It so happens that the Great Lent (Great Fast in Orthodox usage) leading to Easter is the only fasting period in most Protestant Church calendars. On the other hand, Orthodox Churches observe several other fasting/penitential (‘nompu’) periods. The ones observed by Malankara Orthodox Church are either in honor of special events or days (like Nineveh, Wednesday, Friday), or in preparation for specific feast days of the Church: Nativity of the Lord, Resurrection of the Lord, Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and Dormition of the Lord’s Mother. Of these, the 50-day fast before the Resurrection seems to be the only one that is the ‘Lent’, according to the meaning of that word. There is no ‘Advent lent’; it is Advent (Nativity or 25-day) fast. There is no ‘3-day lent’; it is 3-day (or Nineveh) fast. And so on. Shall we correct our thinking and usage?
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The writer Alex Mathew is from Wesley Chapel, Florida