What we put into Lent

“There is no island, no continent, no city or nation, no distant corner of the globe, where the proclamation of the Lenten fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement,” St. Basil the Great (d. 379) proclaimed.

Then he added the warning: “Let no man then separate himself from the number of fasters, in which every race of mankind, every period of life, every class of society is included.”

Today the warning is less dire and the proclamation of the Lenten fast is usually in a corner of the diocesan newspaper and the parish bulletin. But it’s no less compelling.

Here’s something I didn’t know. After the Reformation, the Lenten fast was still publicly proclaimed in England. It was announced by criers along the streets and alleyways by order of Parliament. Even the Puritans that loathed anything in the Church of England that smelled of “papists” retained monthly fast days.

While they were generally ignored, the Lenten fast remained on the books after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The statutes weren’t formally removed until 1863. That tidbit is told in one of my favorite books, “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs,” by Jesuit Father Francis X. Weiser. My hardback edition is from 1958. You can get an old copy on Amazon, but it’ll cost you.

Though there were no criers in the streets or acts of Parliament when I was a kid, the Lenten regulations were serious business at home, school and the neighborhood. There was no escaping them.

The two Jewish men — Harold and his brother-in-law, Herbie — who ran the local soda fountain, paperback and candy store where we did most of our commerce knew the ins-and-outs of Lent as well as the nuns at the school. They couldn’t do business without a working knowledge of Church discipline. St. Basil would have been happy that the merchants still heard the Lenten proclamation.

At school, the Lenten days had their own rhythms. It began with ashes distributed at the parish church, then the weekly Friday Stations of the Cross and early daily Masses with toast in our lunch bags because of the midnight fast for Communion. The nuns let us eat at our desks before classes began. I still associate Lenten mornings with cold, dry toast.

The blue-plate Lenten specials at home weren’t much better. The menu-board in my mother’s kitchen was an oleo of meatless horrors. There was creamed tuna fish with something she called “Spanish Rice” — a kiss of tomato soup over a scoop of boiled white rice. If it hadn’t been for hot-cross buns and peanut butter on Saltine crackers, I might not have survived those childhood Lents.

Father Weiser described “a most interesting survival of early Christian Lenten fare.” The Christians in the Roman Empire “made a special dough consisting of flour, salt and water only (since fat, eggs and milk were forbidden). They shaped it in the form of two arms crossed in prayer, to remind them that Lent was a season of penance and devotion. They called these breads ‘little arms’ (bracellae). From the Latin word, the Germans later coined the term Brezel or Prezel, from which comes our word pretzel.”

Father Weiser notes that the “oldest known picture of a pretzel may be seen in a manuscript from the fifth century in the Vatican.”

It all comes down to a Lent where every day of the season — and all we eat or don’t eat — is immersed in both our ancient Catholic heritage and the modern pilgrimage to Holy Week and Easter.

It’s a Lent that St. Basil proclaimed in the fourth century. It continues today if you look for it. And practice it.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.