By REV. JEFF NOWERS
As the days become noticeably longer, Christian communities are in the thick of the 40-day season called Lent. The meaning of the word “Lent,” which originated in Old English, has to do with “lengthening”—the incremental lengthening of daylight hours that leads to the celebration of Easter.
In medieval Christianity, Lent was an austere period of strict fasting and soul-searching, mirroring the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism. By the late Middle Ages, however, Lenten rigidity had begun to wane somewhat: fasting gave way to a restricted diet, such as not eating meat.
That practice has continued to evolve up to the present time. Individuals identify a certain food luxury or pleasure as something from which to abstain: chocolate, alcohol, sweets, social media (Lenten discipline isn’t always food-related).
Sometimes, instead of giving something up, people take something on that isn’t part of their usual routine, such as drinking more water, going to the gym regularly, or reading a passage of the Bible daily.
What’s the point of these Lenten disciplines and practices?
One purpose is to allow Christians to prepare intentionally for the celebration of Easter—the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over death. In that preparation, we need to be reminded of the reality of death, our mortality, and the frailty and uncertainty of life. In order to do that, many of us abstain from certain pleasures that otherwise might shield us from a reality check.
Another purpose of observing Lent goes beyond the particulars of Christian faith. It has to do with identifying harmful temptations that the normal patterns of our lives might prevent us from discerning.
One example of an insidious temptation that afflicts everyone is single-use plastic. Cups and lids, straws, cutlery and utensils, packaging of produce and meat, bags of milk, shrink wrap—these have become a central part of our everyday lives. Toronto has attempted to beef up its recycling program over the years, but far from everything put in a blue bin ends up recycled.
The temptation of single-use plastic is cost-efficiency and ease, but the effects on our planet are taking a drastic toll.
Much of single-use plastic ends up in water streams that ultimately feed oceans. In the midst of the Pacific Ocean is a notorious gyre of plastic debris—what Angela Sun, in her documentary film Plastic Paradise, has described as “minestrone soup”—adding up to an area greater than the size of Texas. Plastic is getting into the fish we eat, the water we drink, and the salt we use.
This year at the outset of Lent I resolved to give up single-use plastic. It’s been one of the toughest Lenten disciplines I’ve ever taken on. It’s impacted my choice of food to buy, how I eat, and where I shop. But it’s also given me hope as I encounter many others who are reordering their consumption for the wellbeing of our world.
I readily concede that I haven’t been able to eliminate single-use plastic entirely from my life. Whatever unavoidable single-use plastic that I use now goes in a large bag that I’ll assess carefully at the conclusion of Lent. More importantly, I don’t intend to resign myself to single-use plastic after Easter.
Lent, though it is part of the Christian tradition, can be observed with integrity by anyone of any faith or no faith. It’s a wonderful 40-day commitment to be reminded that our world is not as it should be, that we all in various degrees bear some responsibility for our collective woes, and that we can resolve with hope to live differently.
The Rev. Jeff Nowers is Associate Priest of St. Aidan’s Anglican Church, located on Queen Street East at Silver Birch Avenue. Visit www.staidansinthebeach.com for more information.