Lent begins for Orthodox believers in a little over a week, with Forgiveness Vespers the night of March 9th. The extent of Orthodox Lenten fasting and services can seem rigorous at first glance. But I suppose it is all how you look at it. We are reminded that Lent is not about giving up anything, but rather, taking on more in the way of spiritual disciplines. It is a time to be quieter, more centered, more focused, if you will.
Orthodox Lent rarely makes the news. Not so with Catholic and Anglican Lent, which fits the more mainstream perception of the season. And every year, some news article quotes someone who just doesn't get it. A good case in point is this story, in which 2 Anglican bishops encourage their flocks to give up carbon instead of chocolate. Oh good grief. One expects this sort of thing from Anglicans these days. In fact, I would be disappointed if Lent rolled around without some such silliness as this from that quarter.
What one doesn't expect is this. The Dutch Catholic charity Vantenaktie is now referring to Lent as "Christian Ramadan." Lord. have. mercy. As I said, one would expect this sort of thing from the British Anglicans, but from a Catholic group? Christian Ramadan? The mind reels.
A spokesman explains:
"The image of the Catholic Lent must be polished. The fact that we use a Muslim term is related to the fact that Ramadan is a better-known concept among young people than Lent," said Vastenaktie Director, Martin Van der Kuil.
Oh, I see. Well, that makes it all okay then.
If memory serves me correctly, Christianity precedes Islam by over six centuries. Therefore, you cannot define or describe the Faith in Islamic terms. It would be akin to describing the Magna Carta in terms of the Declaration of Independence, or describing the battle of Agincourt in terms of the battle of Gettysburg. You can, however, legitimately define Islam in terms of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and everything else of which it is a derivative.
I recall my 2006 visit to the Meryamana Kilisesi (Church of the Virgin Mary) in Diyarbakir, Turkey. I wrote about it at the time, here. This city is well off the tourist trail. In fact, it is the only place, in all my visits there, that I ever felt the least bit uncomfortable. Diyarbakir is an ancient city, but the population surged to over a million due to the dislocation of Kurdish villagers during the PKK troubles of the 1990s. The city is considered the epicenter of the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey. A heavy military presence guards a sometimes seething population. But the old city is enclosed by ancient Byzantine walls, said to be the longest outside of China. Also, deep within a maze of alleyways and warrens lies the Meryamana Kilisesi.
Hidden behind a protective walled compound, the church dates back to the late 4th century. Three or so Syrian Orthodox Christian families hold out within the compound. The church is one of the oldest in the world. Anyway, my Turkish guide, as well as our driver, joined me for part of the Vespers service there (in Aramaic, no less). They were both surprised to see that we did prostrations in the course of the service. My friend Turan asked me about it afterwards, and I gently chided him a bit by saying, "Of course we do prostrations. Where do you think y'all got the idea?"
All of that is to say that Islam can be seen in light of the Christian and Jewish practices that form the basis for its own practices. In the early years of Islam, it was often viewed as just another Christian heresy. But it cannot, and should not, work the other way around. This is just inexcusable.