Last Tuesday, Michele and I celebrated – maybe over celebrated – Fat Tuesday, today our Lent starts. For the next six weeks, we have agreed to stay off of all intoxicants (we don’t count coffee, tea, or sugar). This has pretty much become a tradition of ours and we find it sort of ironically enjoyable to honor Lent without being Christians. Following a nominally Christian ritual without being tied to the dogma – or a Hindu ritual in a temple in Bali for that matter – always gets me thinking how religions build on the religious traditions they are replacing. Maybe build is not the right word, maybe it should be expropriate or piss on.
It seems to me that it takes both temporal and physical forms. Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ, takes place at about the time of the old Pagan Winter Solstice festivals. The Pagans were here first with Solstice celebrations like the Roman Saturnalia, among others, and as Christianity became the dominant religion, it took on the trappings of Saturnalia but changed them to a celebration of Christ’s birth. Part of what happens in that the holiday is already there, so tweaking it to become the new holiday is easier than starting fresh but part of it is also sticking a metaphorical finger in their – whoever they are – metaphorical face.
I know that we are doing that in reverse. That is actually what we are doing. Every year we have a Solstice celebration that works because it is already holiday party season: the tree is up, the yule log is lit, so making it about the Solstice is pretty easy. That is also what we are doing with Lent. After all, Lent really is a result of adjusting to the scarcity of late winter, early spring. It makes a virtue of a problem. Like Gefilte fish came from the poor Jews of Eastern Europe not being able to afford a fish worth cooking whole, or beef bourguignon being the peasants answer to tough pieces of meat. The point being, the causes of Lent were already there; the Church just took it over.
In the same way. the Conquistadors, or Missionaries, whoever they were, built their new churches on old sacred sites. They jammed the new religion down the old religion’s throat. Now comes the fun part: in Chichicastenango, Guatemala – and I am sure there are hundreds, if not thousands of similar situations – the Mayas have now turned the Church stairs back into their Temple. They have re-expropriated the Sacred Temple. By acknowledging Lent, by honoring it; I like to think we are doing the same thing.