Lent and Hunger – Is There a Connection

Wealth and poverty - Mural Sheffield Tasmania

Wealth and poverty – Mural Sheffield Tasmania

In the class I am currently teaching on Wednesday evenings on spirituality and gardening we are currently talking about what I call liturgical gardening. It is not by accident that Christmas occurs, at least in the Northern Hemisphere where the liturgical calendar was developed, at the coldest, darkest time of the year. The message of the season is: wait for the light and as we move into Epiphany, the season of light, we are all aware of the lengthening days and how welcome the emerging light is. This interweaving of the rituals of faith with the daily activities of life would have been a faith affirming and strengthening part of life for more rural societies.

The connection with Lent and the seasons of the year is less obvious. Often it is associated with spring cleaning, but that seems more of a middle class, urban association that I suspect developed as a later association for Lent. Wednesday evening this became the focus of our discussion. I pointed out that in Africa hunger and malnutrition is often seasonal. During the harvest season everyone is able to eat their fill and no one starves. By the time the stored supplies have dwindled it is a different matter. Sometimes the last of the stored grain is used for planting and in a very lean year even this may be used to feed the family. In 2010 925 million people in our world were still chronically hungry. (2012 World Hunger and Poverty Facts)

The season of Lent for many of us coincides with the planting season and I wonder if this seasonal hunger which would once have been experienced by a large part of the population influenced its shape. The typical fasting Lenten diet of lentils, beans and grain with little fresh produce and little meat could have come from the fact that this was often all that remained in the larder at this season.

I have tried to find information on this hypothesis but without success and would appreciate hearing from others who have considered this possibility. What I do know however that the dietary restrictions for this season became less and less rigorous as societies became more affluent and I suspect, people did not want to give up their indulgent diets. And today, if we give up anything at all it is usually something as trivial as chocolate or coffee.

Once when Tom and I were in Lebanon during Lent we had lunch with an Orthodox priest and his wife. They ate only lentils and rice but had prepared a lavish feast for us. Lent is a great time of the year to enter into the hunger of others by restricting our diets and giving what we save to those at the margins.

Each year Tom and I participate in what we call the $2 challenge, restricting our food budget to $2/person/day for a week. It isn’t easy and it often results in a rather monotonous diet, but it is a challenging and sobering way to identify with those who never have enough to put on their plates.

In my internet search for information on Lent and hunger I did come across some good resources you might want to check out:

The ELCA has a great World Hunger Lenten Series available – lots of good information and suggestions. They go for a $3/day diet – probably more doable today.

Bread for the World always produces wonderful resources that challenge us to face the issues of hunger. This year they have worked in collaboration with Women of Faith for the 1,000 Days Movement to develop a series of Lenten activities around the theme of Maternal and Child Nutrition in the 1,000 day window between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday. Check out what is be available here

Episcopal Relief and Development has chosen the alleviation of hunger for the theme of their Lenten Meditations this year too. They are available in both English and Spanish and can be downloaded for free.

Obviously this is only a small number of the many resources available during this season. If you know of others that specifically focus on issues of poverty and hunger please add them in the comments below.