Celtic Reflections on LentPosted by Kenneth McIntosh on March 5, 2012, 12:42 pm
While a child, I was exposed to the idea of Lent by mother, who was Methodist, but it was nothing I took seriously. The idea of “going without” some minor luxury for 40 days made no sense (especially so as I was not yet a follower of Christ). As a young adult, I was trained in the Faith by Calvinist Protestants, who eschewed any such Popish practice as Lent. Now, past the middle of my life, I’ve learned to appreciate Christian practices that follow the ancient paths—and especially Celtic ones—and so Lent becomes meaningful at last.
What is Lent and how did it begin? It is the observance of the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, a time that serves as preparation for the foundational events of Christ’ death and Resurrection. It is a very old custom, first noted by Irenaus of Lyons (130-200) and formalized by the Council of Nicea (325). Originally, believers observed a partial fast during that time, eating only one meal each day and forgoing meat and fish throughout the season. The experience of Lent would be similar to the Muslim observance of Ramadan. Over time, the observance became more liberally observed, hence the oft-mentioned modern “giving up chocolate.”
Lent ties in with old Celtic traditions in several ways. First, it is based originally on Christ’ 40 days of temptation in the desert—a time when he fasted to overcome the allures of the Devil. The desert was a major motif for Celtic Christians in the Dark Ages. They modeled themselves on Saint Anthony who—like Jesus—chose a life of self-denial in the desert wilderness. There are still places in Ireland named ‘Dysert’ in honor and imitation of the Egyptian desert saints. So the forty days of Lent called Celtic believers to recall their connection with Christ and with their Coptic brethren who embraced the spirituality of the forsaken wilderness.
Irish monastics lived in rude huts like this one, in imitation of their Egyptian desert brethren.
Lent is the strongest thread linking modern day Christians to the ascetic practices that typified Celtic spirituality . ‘Ascetic’ is a word oft-derided due to its connections with absurd and extreme practices (one thinks of the masochist priest in The Da Vinci Code). Yet self-denial has a very long and honored place in the larger category of spiritual disciplines. All recorded lives of Celtic Christians in the early Middle Ages note various forms of asceticism. Modern day followers of Jesus would be well served to practice moderate forms of bodily self-discipline for spiritual growth. I’ve written on this at length in my book Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life. For a very practical set of modern-day suggestions of Lenten observance, check out this site.
Finally, ancient Celtic Christians incorporated their traditional practices of grieving into their remembrance of Christ’ passion. One ancient aspect of a Celtic Wake is the singing of laments by the women, known as keening. In the same way, women would compose and sing songs during Lent that mourned the death of Christ. A traditional lament from Galway gives voice to Mary grieving at the cross:
Who is that fine man on the tree of torture?
Is that the little son that I carried for nine months?
Is that the little son born in a stable?
Is that the little son nourished at my breast?
And is that the hammer that drove the nails through you?
Is that the spear that went through your bright breast?
Is that the crown of thorns which was upon your beautiful head?
And then Christ himself responds with words of comfort to his mother’s lament:
Listen, O Little Mother, and do not be upset
O Woman, you are crying on account of my death
But there will be hundreds with me today in the Garden of Paradise!
This time-honored Celtic lament typifies the season of Lent: our self-denial for 40 desert days prepares us well to celebrate the glorious feast day of Christ’ Easter victory!
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