What we celebrate and why: Christian Lent – a Catholic perspective

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40-day period of Lent for Christians. The Orthodox Churches call it Great Lent, but also have three other longer periods of fasting.

In the weeks before Good Friday, Christians remember the suffering and death of Jesus Christ and prepare for Easter, for the message of the resurrection. The biblical background for setting Lent at 40 days and nights is Jesus’ fasting in the desert, which also lasted forty days. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the Easter Vigil from Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday. In calendar terms, however, Lent lasts longer than 40 days because Sundays, as holidays, are excluded from fasting and penance.

Julia Winterboer, a participant in DialoguePerspectives from the 2015/16 programme year, reflects on her Lenten ritual thus:

Why voluntarily give up something I love or like?

That was the question I asked myself as a child when I was supposed to give up sweets during Lent before Easter. Inevitably, I always failed in this resolution, if only because my birthday was during this period. Nevertheless, I stubbornly tried again every year, as if it was something that absolutely had to be done. Until I gave it up as a teenager.

It was only as a young adult that I approached this ritual again. I was interested in what it actually meant to do without, especially in a country where abundance and availability are taken for granted.

Since then, I have experienced that this self-chosen renunciation, for example of sweets, coffee, or the use of social media, gives me a different richness. The renunciation questions what I otherwise perceive as everyday things. When I fasted sweets, I experienced the sweetness of fruits anew. When I stopped drinking coffee, I cared more about sleep and was more rested. Instead of wasting time on social media, I was more aware of what was happening around me. Through this freely chosen renunciation, I experienced abundance.

Last year, I went on a pilgrimage with a Muslim friend in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi. This saint emphasised poverty. His path was very radical, but the idea that renunciation brings another fullness of life is becoming more and more important to me. It is more than just a spiritual thought, it raises the question of a good, fulfilled, and sustainable life, characterised by simplicity and enjoyment. Socially, there seems to be a narrative that “more” always equals more happiness or fulfilment. For me, fasting means having the paradoxical experience that it is the other way around.

In the Catholic rite, we begin Lent with a cross of ash drawn on our foreheads as the priest speaks the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” For me, this draws my attention to what is really important in my life, and it is a reminder of my mortality, my limitations, which are also a part of being human. Forty days is a long time. And setbacks are (still) part of it. But during and at the end of this time, I experience why it is worth it.

Julia Winterboer

Julia Winterboer is a DialoguepersPectives alumna and was a participant in our first programme. She holds a master’s degree in German philology and ethics as well as religion and culture. Julia Winterboer has been the education, social affairs and culture officer at the Catholic University Community Bielefeld since 2016.

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˝DialoguePerspectives offers a unique change of perspective! The programme allows you to really grapple with current and highly societally relevant questions, to reflect on your own identity, and to get to know the diversity of European identities. I am very grateful for the intensive personal discussion and encounters, and the great amount of food for thought that has stuck with me long past the seminars.

Ezgi, DialoguePerspectives participant

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