I’m teaching my UU kids about Lent this Sunday. Last year, Bella asked me what it was and so we actually did the whole giving up something we loved. I gave up chocolate. It nearly killed me. I blathered on so much about it on FB that everyone gave me a hard time and a friend sent me an embarrassing amount of chocolate when it was all said and done.
This little observance has a very controversial past. When you google “Lent history” you get two very divergent viewpoints right away. The first is the heavily Catholic version, which is all about the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and Holy Week and so forth. The other side is the very conservative evangelicals, which will point out that Lent isn’t actually in the Bible (but then again, neither is Christmas or Easter?), and that it has Pagan roots (again, Christmas and Easter?) and so that is why the Catholic church is, in their view, wrong. Who knew Lent was so dang beleagured! I mean, it is a harder observance to sell. You don’t run out and buy Lent gifts or Lent food if you are in mourning or fasting or the like.
The truth is, well, who knows where the truth is. Lent wasn’t actually celebrated in the Catholic church until the fourth century. However, there are other much older traditions that observe a similar occasion, so chances are very strong this was another way of converting the remaining Pagans. (And yes, I get that Lent mirrors the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, being tempted by Satan.) The most common story I find that is similar to the Christian Lent is this one, from Babylonia (and apologies, this is lifted off a web site that I have lost the address. If this is your site or you find it, let me know and I will link to it):
Upon the death of Tammuz his wife and beloved Inanna or Ishtar, was so stricken with grief that she followed him to the underworld. Since she was the goddess of spring rains that bring forth the fruit of life, the land was barren and desolate without her presence. Ea, their god of water and wisdom was moved to send a messenger to rescue Ishtar. Eresh-Kigl allowed the messenger to sprinkle the water of life on Ishtar and Tammuz, which gave them the power to return to the world for six months of the year. The remaining part of the year, Tammuz must return to the underworld, forcing Ishtar to follow him and also forcing Ea to give the water of life. This explained to their culture the miracle of resurrection and spring that occurred every year. Over the centuries the story and the yearly rites connected with Tammuz, moved westward to Phoenicia and Syria.
What is interesting to me is the spiritual practice, whether you are Catholic or Christian or whatever that can be accomplished from this. From the School of the Seasons site:
There is a long tradition of spring purification. Cleansing is part of the action of the tonic herbs of early spring on the body. Also think of spring cleaning. Those who planned to be initiated during the Eleusinian Mysteries in the fall participated in purification ceremonies in the early spring, which included bathing in the sea. When the world is being made anew, we wish to make ourselves new. Yet any change is fraught with danger and difficulty. As a friend of mine said while we were on our way to a ritual, “There is no transformation without change.” Gertud Mueller Nelson in her wonderful book on Catholic ritual comments, “which of us…does not know we must change and fear it, and in that fear come face to face with the mystery of death.” She believes that “conscious engagement of suffering and death forces us to take stock of our gift of life and consider ways of reforming and living our lives more fully and passionately.”
So what on earth does this have to do with pretzels anyway? Well, in my research I came across this cute little story about the origin of pretzels. Is it factual? Perhaps as factual as the history of Lent! But it’s fun and relevant. Basically, the story is that a monk around 600 AD. During Lent, you had to give up some finer foods, such a milk or eggs (or chocolate or Pop Tarts) and it was a challenge to make a bread without some of those ingredients. Pretzels are a very simple food. They consist of flour, sugar, yeast, water and salt. They are shaped that way so that if you hold it so the two round ends are down, they mimic the way hands might be held against one’s chest as they pray. In fact, pretzel is allegedly derived from the Italian “pretiola” which means “little reward.” Aha. A Lent project for the kids. They like to bake! We did a trial run tonight and I think we’re good to go! I just need a warm body to help me out. Anyone want to help make pretzels at 10:45?
So if you end up at a bar and you start snacking on pretzels, you’re supposed to think about prayer. Chances are you’ll be thinking “these pretzels are making me thirsty.”
What are you giving up for Lent, to do a little cleansing? I’m considering chocolate or dessert. I vowed never again. But that was so last year.