Diversity Matters: Lent

February 8, 2018  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources,

The month of February isn’t simply about football, groundhogs and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate.

In fact, later this month, many members of the Michigan Medicine community will be observing Lent, an important time of reflection and penance for those who practice the Christian faith.

To better support patients, families and colleagues who observe Lent, here’s what you may not know about the holiday:

The history behind Lent

Lent is a religious observance in many Christian faiths, including the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Methodist, Lutheran and Anglican churches. The holiday traditionally begins on Ash Wednesday and ends six weeks later on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday.

This year, many Roman Catholics, for example, will begin observing Lent on Feb. 14 and continue for the next 40 days, not counting Sundays. This time period is important, as it reflects the 40 days depicted in the Bible where Jesus endured various temptations from Satan while fasting in the desert, preparing for the beginning of his ministry.

The word “Lent” is derived from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which literally means “spring.” Its purpose can be defined as a time for Christians to focus on their relationships with God through prayer, performing penance and “mortifying the flesh,” or abstaining from things that they traditionally enjoy.

“As a Catholic, Lent is incredibly important to both me and my family,” said Katy White, a former catechism teacher who now serves as the event and meeting coordinator for Michigan Medicine’s Office for Health Equity and Inclusion. “I love the intentionality of the holiday — by giving something up, it allows me to focus on the present, as well as my ongoing relationship with God in a new way every year. This both grounds me and reminds me of the importance of Easter and the sacrifices Jesus made.”

For many Christian faiths, the Stations of the Cross — or a visual representation of and commemoration to Jesus Christ’s carrying of the cross and impending execution — are often recognized in church during Lent. In addition, many churches will often drape violet-colored fabrics over crucifixes and religious statues to mark the holiday.

Differences between denominations

While Roman Catholics begin Lent on Ash Wednesday, many other denominations start observing the holiday at different times and vary the ways in which they calculate “40 days.”

The Eastern Orthodox church, for example, includes Sundays in their Lent totality, and begin the observance on Clean Monday, which is two days before Ash Wednesday.

The Oriental Orthodox, meanwhile, recognize Lent for a total of 55 days before Easter, as their fasting period is divided into three separate segments: Tsome Hirkal, or an eight-day period designed to pay homage to early Christianity, Tsome Arba, or the actual 40 days of Lent, and Tsome Himamat, a seven-day celebratory holy week.

“The beauty of Lent is that while many Christian faiths observe the holiday differently, the message remains the same — through sacrifice and reflection, our relationships with God are strengthened,” said White.

Changing behavior

Many Christians consciously give up a certain food or beverage of their choice during Lent. At the same time, the holiday also calls for abstaining from the consumption of meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays (and sometimes Saturdays) and/or fasting completely, depending on the denomination.

“Because many Catholics avoid meat on Fridays during Lent, many local churches hold fish fry fundraisers during this time,” said White. “Not only is this a great way to commemorate the holiday, but it also brings people together during such a meaningful period.”

If a patient wishes to abstain from certain foods during Lent, reach out to his or her registered dietitian nutritionist to find out what can be offered at Michigan Medicine.

In the end, you may notice patients, families and colleagues changing their dietary choices or other behavior over the next few weeks.

As White said, “It’s important to remain open-minded and supportive to all of us who are observing Lent, as it is one of our most sacred times of the year.”