The origin of the word Lent

Christian and pagan

Gabriel in Leonardo's Annunciation
Gabriel in Leonardo’s Annunciation

A very erudite buddy of mine shared this with our fellow Bible Guys recently. He’s allowed me to share it with you.

Regarding the origin of the word Lent, the name for the Christian fast is a shortening of lenten.

In Chaucer’s day, it was a word for the springtime that had also been extended to refer to the Christian observance coinciding with the season.
Lenten itself began as good Anglo-Saxon lengten, a compound word, the first element derived from Indo-European *dlongʰós=long, and the second, ten, from Indo-European *deyn = day.

Exegesis re terms for Lent in other languages

English is quite unusual in adopting the term Lent. Other Germanic tongues simply use Fast or some variation thereof (German – Fastenzeit, Norweigian – fastetid or langfaste).

Latin, translating the original Greek 40th, established quādrāgēsima, which at 5 syllables was destined to be eroded in Italian to 4 syllables, Quaresima. In Spanish and Portuguese to 3, Cuaresma. Finally and, not insignificantly, farthest away, in French, as Carême to 2.

Slavic tongues all have some variant of ‘great fast’ e.g. Polish – Wielki Post [Slavic p = f].

Dutch situated between the Romance lands to the south and the Germanic to the east has both veertigdagentijd (= 40 days time) translating the Latin and vastentijd (fast-time), preserving the native Germanic term.

Similarly, Serbo-Croatian (the same language, aka Serb when written in Cyrillic and Croatan when appearing in Latin), a border language if ever there was one, has both Latin sourced korizma (cf quaresima) and Slavic, Veliki post.

Hawaiian has Kalema, which at first looks exceptional, but given l = r, must be a loan from Sp. or Por or Fr.

Finally, there is Maltese. Once you know that it is descended from Arabic (although written in Latin alphabet), you can perhaps guess that their word, Randan, comes from Ramadan. In Modern Arabic, though, to come full circle, Lent is known as “aṣ-ṣawm al-kabīr” ( اَلصَّوْمالْكَبِير‎ ), which they tell me means “great fast.”

The takeaway

Apropos of Xian and pagan celebrations, it occurred to me that the practice of aligning the new with the extant, while a cooptation, bespeaks admirable toleration from the victor not always seen after an intense confrontation. It is especially rare, sadly, when the conflict involves successful revolt of an erstwhile oppressed element of the dominant hegemon.

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Pandora's Inbox
Pandora’s Inbox by Dave Coverly. used with permission
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The best thing to give up this Lent is plastic.

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Execute order 66.

Loud music.


Understand – Aubrey Logan, Rebecca Jade on background vocals.

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Gustav Holst’s The Planets – Jupiter, scored for five pianos.

Everything Changes – Eytan and The Embassy, also Star Wars parody, plus the identities revealed of the original video.

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K-Chuck Radio: The “cover band” phase of popular bands and Olivia Newton-John does make you feel mellow.

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NPR’s ‘Jazz Profiles’, hosted by Nancy Wilson; Miles Davis: ‘Kind of Blue’ (2001).

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Ash Wednesday: What is hell to you?

I opined that the old guy was in his own hell, and Catbird agreed.

I don’t think a whole lot about hell. Well, not since I was growing up with the concept constantly slipped into every third sermon I heard.

One of the things that started my long withdrawal from church in my twenties had a hell of a lot to do with what some said happened after death.

Specifically, it was the notion that everyone who didn’t accept Jesus as their savior was going to some fiery pit in the next life. That would include someone in a remote village in Nepal or person on a tiny island in the Pacific. (This is why we “needed” so many missionaries.)

Still, I think there is a “hell.” My good friend Catbird is reading “The Da Vinci Code,” which I’ve never even started. The motivation was partly because the book is on the PBS “Great American Read” list.

But it was also because some old acquaintance of Catbird’s said it was the work of the devil, which made it more enticing. My friend emailed the acquaintance to ask what event or character had informed his opinion, figuring he had never actually read the story. He replied that Catbird was going to hell and that his words were a warning.

Catbird shared the opinion that both heaven and hell are what one chooses to make of one’s circumstances. A life-altering experience has deeply informed my friend that death is nothing to fear.

I opined that the old guy was in his own hell, and Catbird agreed. And from appearances, it seems “entirely self-inflicted… and possibly addictive.” Catbird heard on the radio about the door to hell being locked from the inside and thought that it applied especially well to him.

So what is hell to you? Is it a physical place after we leave this mortal coil? Is it something else? Does it not exist at all? Maybe you’re hedging your bet.

This Lenten discussion immediately brought to mind a song written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong: You Make Your Own Heaven And Hell Right Here On Earth, recorded by The Temptations and Undisputed Truth.

Advent as Lent-lite?

“I’m not a Christian but I used to have a very strong respect for what they stood for.”

liturgical cycleIt seems that Advent, the season we’re in now, doesn’t bring me as much joy as it does for others. Someone, I don’t remember who, recently suggested that Advent is Lent-lite.

And I submit it may be true. Just as the Lent precedes the Easter Resurrection, so too is the waiting for the birth. The songs can be somber and in minor key.

It may be Seasonal Affective Disorder, “a type of depression that reoccurs during the winter months and typically lasts until the spring or summer.” The early snow did not help.

Back in the 1980s, I used to go visit my parents’ house in Charlotte, NC January, around Martin Luther King’s birthday. The perfect timing was mandated by doing seasonal music at church and the heavy retail period at the store I worked, FantaCo, followed by doing inventory just after the first of the year.

But I reckon that I also become despondent over how the season has been taken over. Mark Evanier said, “I’m not a Christian but I used to have a very strong respect for what they stood for,” and I knew too well what he meant.

When Christianist apologists act Unchristian, when they “show that on immigration, race, and poverty, white evangelical Protestants have surrendered moral judgment and social responsibility, ” it makes me somewhat angry, but mostly incredibly sad.

Alternet suggests the so-called “war on Christmas” for a proxy war for white supremacy. And it sounds about right.

Then Christmas Eve arrives. It still involves waiting, but it is now of a very short duration. The music that we sing generally has a special magic.

The service has some of the structures of the previous years, yet it always has something new. I trick myself into believing that, for a short while at least, all IS right with the world.

L is for Lent

Every time Jesus mentioned the equivalent of a church tradition, the Torah, he qualified it with something like this: “The scriptures say thus and so, but I say…”

christianLeftI realize it’s rather late in the season of Lent. But I’m endlessly fascinated with it. Much of my favorite music is associated with the season.

Why DO we give up something for Lent?

Today we know Lent as a season of conversion: we acknowledge the ways we have turned away from God in our lives and we focus on turning our hearts and minds back toward God.

A piece someone wrote recently – I no longer remember who – has stayed with me:

I have a question for my friends who are giving up something for Lent: chocolate, Facebook, etc. I used to give up sweets etc. too. It just occurred to me, though, that instead of “giving up” something, if we all did MORE random acts of kindness (being extra kind or extra considerate, holding doors, letting people pull ahead of us, etc.), the world would be really great for those 40 days.

And who knows, maybe it would continue beyond that. And I think God would like that a whole lot more. I know the reasoning is to deprive ourselves. What if we deprived ourselves of being selfish or snippy or judgmental? Just a thought. I’m going to go eat chocolate now.

My church has expanded the season to Lentecost, from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, to agree to take on service activities, such as our Author/Illustrator Day in April with a local school, the home repair & rebuilding program, and the FOCUS Breakfast Program, among several choices. Here is the FOCUS Churches Lenten reflections, created by forty men and women from the community of partner congregations, of which my church is one; I’m sure it’ll still apply AFTER Easter as well.

The religion page in the Huffington Post features a good read, WWJD: What Would Jesus Do? Do You Really Want to Know? It begins:

Once upon a time, a mother made her son a wristband. On it was written: WWJD? This, of course stood for: “What Would Jesus Do?” She instructed her son to look at the wristband before making decisions on how to live his Christian life.

A week later she was shocked to see that her son had become friends with prostitutes, was hanging out with ‘sinners’ — even buying people who were already drunk yet another round of beers!

I was also taken by a piece in Salon. Despite its probably polarizing title, Why conservative Christians would have hated Jesus, and some finger-wagging narrative, it did have some points that I could buy into:

Every time Jesus mentioned the equivalent of a church tradition, the Torah, he qualified it with something like this: “The scriptures say thus and so, but I say…” Jesus undermined the scriptures and religious tradition in favor of empathy. Every time Jesus undermined the scriptures (Jewish “church tradition”) it was to err on the side of co-suffering love… Every time Pope Francis sides with those the Church casts out he is closer to Jesus…

Perhaps what we need to give up is some of our rigidity about what God looks like.
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ABC Wednesday – Round 16

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