And in the Rest of the World: Observing Lent

Mar 04, 2017 11.00AM |

by The Middle Ground

HOW time flies – it feels as if 2017 just started, yet we’re already done with February! The start of March also marks an important Christian tradition, the observance of Lent.

During Lent, Christians commit to greater spiritual devotion to God and abstain from luxuries (such as avoiding profligate spending). Most adherents, notably the Roman Catholics, also observe Lent by giving up the consumption of meat. The period of Lent traditionally lasts forty days. It begins on Ash Wednesday (Mar 1) and includes the holy week that immediately precedes Easter (Apr 16).

The holy week comprises Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Palm Sunday is widely observed in Singapore where Catholics receive new palm leaves blessed by the priest to bring home. Similarly, on Maundy Thursday, churches are crowded for Maundy Thursday service and the ritual feet washing ceremony, where the priest or Archbishop will wash the feet of some of the parishioners. This particular rite was only limited to men and boys until Pope Francis issued a new rule that women should be able to participate as well.

While the purpose of Lent – to draw oneself closer to God through religious penance and resisting the temptations of the flesh – is shared by many Christian denominations, the means through which Lent is observed differ greatly.

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1. Manilla, Philippines – Dedicated devotees carry heavy crosses, self-flagellate

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Some Catholic devotees in the Philippines mark the last week of Lent by whipping themselves in public or carrying heavy crosses barefoot through the streets of Manilla. A small fraction even engages in gory displays of crucifixion, nailing themselves to wooden crosses. This practice is known in the region as pamagparaya (self-flagellation) and is meant for the adherent to experience a fraction of the suffering that Christ went through.

Devotees often go through pamagparaya to petition for good health, either for themselves or an ailing relative. Some devotees also put themselves through pain as penance for their sins, as an act of religious cleansing.

The Catholic Church has criticised this tradition, claiming that it goes against Catholic teachings that the body is sacred. Other religious critics have further expressed discomfort that particular villages and communities have taken advantage of the public spectacle to attract tourists, monetising this practice.


2. Moscow, Russia – Two per cent of Russians intend to fully abide by dietary restrictions throughout Lent

Image by falco, from Pixabay
Image by falco, from Pixabay

Russia is home to the Russian Orthodox Church, and nearly half the Russian population identifies as Christian (various denominations, including Protestant, Catholic, and Russian Orthodox). A poll conducted by the Levada Center reported that two per cent of the Russian population, or three million Russians, intend to fully observe the strict Lenten dietary restrictions from Mar 1 to Apr 16.

According to the Russian Orthodox Church, the strict observance of Lent requires giving up all animal food – meat, eggs, fish, seafood and all dairy products. On the first and last day of Lent, complete fasting is recommended. On the second day, only bread and water are allowed. Throughout this period, believers should refrain from alcohol, with the exception of a little wine on weekends, smoking, sex, swearing, and bad thoughts.

Also reported by the Levada Center: 18 per cent of those polled said they intend to observe Lent partially, for instance by giving up meat. 30 per cent of respondents are prepared to reduce their alcohol consumption during Lent, and 15 per cent will restrict their sex lives.


3. Antigua, Guatemala – A grand religious procession to mark the end of Lent

Image by , on Flickr
Image by Arian Zwegers, on Flickr

The Christian faith in Guatemala has its roots in the Spanish conquistadors who spread their faith after invading the territory in the early 1500s. Today, Antiguans mark the end of Lent in distinctive local fashion, by arranging elaborate religious processions which last from dawn to dusk.

During this period, Antigua is well-known for the dozens of large floats which are paraded through the city streets by hundreds of men clad in purple robes. These floats are called “andas”, and either features a statue of Jesus with a cross or a Saint. Andas featuring the Virgin Mary are carried by women dressed in black, and are a rare sight. Before the procession winds its way through the city, the streets are lined with colourful “alfombras” (carpets) that are made from coloured sawdust, grass, fruits, vegetables, flowers and other materials.


4. Mompox, Colombia – A night in the cemetery 

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

At around 6pm on Holy Wednesday, Mompox residents dress in their finest clothing and gather in the town cemetery to commence a ceremony known as the Serenade to the Deceased – a fusion of Catholic traditions with magic and paganism.

Residents light candles to illuminate the cemetery and stay there overnight, sitting in front of graves of deceased loved ones. They place flowers on the graves and serenade the dead. This lasts till the early hours of the morning, when funeral music is played to bring an end to the ceremony.


5. Washington, United States – St. Patrick’s Day to coincide with Lent period
Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

This year, St. Patrick’s Day – a celebratory holiday where corned beef and cabbage is traditionally eaten – falls on a Friday (Mar 17), clashing with the commonly-held Lenten rule of requiring Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays.

St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday once every seven years, and this coincidence has not gone unnoticed by some American bishops. Many had already issued dispensations for Catholics in their dioceses allowing them to eat meat on St. Patrick’s Day. However, they also advised Catholics to do an additional act of charity or penance in exchange for eating meat.


Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin GillCC BY-SA 2.0

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