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Examining students’ approaches to Lenten tradition

By Elias Demeropolis, The Miami Student

Rewind to Wednesday, Feb. 18. Withholding the possibility that you are aware of the Christian season that was just beginning, you may have found your perception of cultural normalcy at Miami sharply ruptured by the sight of ashes emblazoned across the foreheads of students.

This fashioning of burnt palm fronds upon the forehead in the form of a cross, done by a member of the Christian clergy, takes place during a ceremony dubbed Ash Wednesday, which both marks the beginning of the Lenten season, as well as one's commitment to Christianity.

Lent, otherwise known in Latin as "Quadragesima" (which translates to Fortieth in English - it's not too difficult to see why the Latin phrase didn't catch on), is a 40-day period during which an individual fasts, or abstains, from some form of luxury, pleasure or vice. This exercise of control over the body is meant to simulate the Christian tale of the 40-day period during which Jesus Christ fasted while being tempted by Satan, prior to his crucifixion and rising from the dead, an event celebrated by Easter.

Given the Christian population at Miami, there are a remarkably large number of students who engage in the Lenten ritual of fasting, although how they interpret it widely varies.

First-year Julia Pair said chose to give up swearing for Lent.

"It's considered an unprofessional and rude habit," she said. "Plus, you never really know how new people around you are going to perceive and react to cursing in the first place."

Junior Ben Sandlin has a different practice.

"I personally think Lent isn't always about removing something from your life as much as it can be about introducing new positive experiences," he said. "So, for example, I decided that whenever anyone recommends a book, musician or artist to me I really do take the time to look at it. It's incredible how much of a difference it can make to you and others."

Although the basic tenets of the Lenten calendar have remained consistent, the question as to what exactly constitutes an adequate sacrifice during the Lenten season has led to differences in interpretation within the Christian faith, no less a consequence of religion's dynamic socio-historical nature.

Austin Mitchell, a senior studying Arabic and Philosophy, with strong interests in Christianity, reflected on the complexities of the concept of sacrifice within Lent.

"Personally, I think if you do not understand why you are fasting, namely to give something up in order to use that time or resource to provide for another, or to spend time with the Lord, then any fasting you do is hypocritical in a sense," he said.

He pointed out other instances where specific Lenten sacrifices may not make sense in particular contexts.

"If someone decides to give up 'X, Y or Z' for Lent because their church is doing so, and that is the extent of their thought, then they are taking [the sacrifice] too lightly, and inadvertently show apathy toward the whole thing," Mitchell said. "On the other hand, if someone becomes legalistic and prideful about their fasting for Lent, such as patrolling the actions of others around them or giving themselves a 'holier than thou' complex, then they are taking it too seriously in a wrong manner."

Despite the differences in sentiments, attitudes and interpretations toward Lent that one may hold, its message of self-sacrifice for a force, belief or set of values beyond oneself is worth examining.