One answer is that Lent is a section of time in the perpetual round of sacred time that organizes the life of the church. In this picture it appears in purple at the top right of the circle. Lent begins this week on Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2012. It ends on Holy Saturday, April 7. There are 40 days in Lent, though if you counted from Ash Wednesday to Easter, you'd find 46. That is because there are six Sundays, and Sundays, as days of celebration, are not included in the season.
As is the case, even in science, definitions pressed hard enough dissolve in mystery. What is gravity? The name we give to a set of physical relations. What is electricity? The same thing. But try to say what the essence of gravity is, what is this thing that keeps the earth spinning around the sun without falling into it? what is this thing that curves space and time? We finally can't answer those questions. We might as well called it "the Gravity Angel." Lent presents the same problem. Like most Christian concepts, it floats on mystery.
The definition of Lent that appears in the Catholic Catechism contains at least 4 important elements: penance, fasting, prayer, and time. Each one leads to mystery.
For this entry, with a lot of help from Alexander Schmemann's wonderful book, For the Life of the World, I want to talk about food.
Lent sharpens our appetites for God. It encourages us to reform our disordered appetites.
"In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world is his food." (Everything in quotation marks is from Schmemann unless otherwise identified; like a good English professor, I'll give the page numbers. Here it's p. 11.)
"Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment:
'. . . that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom.'" (p. 11)
"All that exists is God's gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man's life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: 'O taste and see that the Lord is good.'" (p. 14)
Schmemann here lays out one of the foundational principles of Christianity, but one that his church, the Greek Orthodox, has kept a firmer grip upon, through time, than even the Roman Catholic Church: the material world is an all-embracing eucharist, a cosmic sacrament. The cosmos itself is a vehicle of God's grace and points to Him. We tend to lose sight of this. Our lives are split between the secular and religous, and even our religious lives tend to split between a "spirituality," which wants to leave the material world behind, and a social gospel, which leaves the spiritual behind. The point is that the material world is spiritual. The point is that we don't expect to continue life after death as disembodied spirits floating in the ether, but as the fully embodied creatures we were intended to be, citizens of a new heaven and a new earth.
Schmemann describes what mankind lost in the Fall as follows: "He does not know that breathing can be communion with God. He does not realize that to eat can be to receive life from God in more than its physical sense. He forgets that the world, its air or its food cannot by themselves bring life, but only as they are received and accepted for God's sake, in God and as bearer of the divine gift of life. By themselves they can produce only the appearance of life." (p. 17)
So what is the fasting part of Lent about? In not only sharpens our appetite for a specific day, the great feast of Easter, but redirects our appetite, through food, toward God. We step back from consumption for a period of 40 days, to taste the true goodness of food that we are hungry for, and to connect that goodness to the ultimate Source of life's blessings. We rest from that practice on the Sundays of Lent to taste the goodness of food and therefore, the goodness of God.
"In our perspective . . . the 'original sin' is not primarily that man has 'disobeyed' God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God." (p.18)
When I visited Oban, Scotland, a few years ago, I went on a tour through the Oban scotch distillery, and was surprised to find out how much scotch they lost through evaporation. "That's for the angels over Oban," the guide said. On Sundays, this Lent, I want to drink with those tipsy angels.