Christians are now observing the season of Lent, a time of fasting and penitence, reflection and contemplation. But the church season’s development in the Northern hemisphere also draws on the powerful pulls of body and earth, of humankind’s connection to the natural world, which, like our bodies, is a creation and temple of God.
The word itself, “Lent,” derives from the Germanic root “lang,” meaning “long,” which also forms the basis of the present-day German “Lenz” (“Spring”). According to the 1964 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, “Lent” (and, one assumes, the German “Lenz”) takes its meaning from the lengthening of days in the spring.
Historically, Lent began as a time of preparation for new converts to the Christian faith before their baptism at Easter, and I imagine that over the centuries many pre-Christian traditions and practices associated with the seasonal transition became part of religious tradition as well. In earlier societies, this seasonal transition was a time to use up winter stores before they went bad (hence, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, a time for one last big winter feast). A time to fast because those winter stores, even those that keep, are running low.
A good time to clear out larders and cupboards, making room for the coming abundance of spring. A good time to clear out and examine old habits, tossing out those which haven’t served us well, making room for the abundance of life promised by Christ’s incarnation in human form and loving sacrifice. Spring’s rebirth reminds us that spiritual rebirth is possible, too, something that isn’t always easy to believe in the season of cold and “winter’s discontent.”
The earthly season reminds us that scarcity (those dwindling stores of winter food) can coexist with hope, symbolized by the lengthening of days. (Ancients did not have to deal with the less welcome intrusion of Daylight Savings Time!)
The Germans actually have two words for spring, and both are used in one of my favorite pieces of music, “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (“The Drunken Man in Spring”), the fifth movement from Mahler’s great song cycle Das Lied von die Erde (The Song of the Earth). Especially lovely is Mahler’s setting of the line “Der Lenz ist da!” (“Spring is here!”).
I located a performance on YouTube, sung by tenor Fritz Wunderlich. The English translation follows the German text, and you can see that this celebration of spring is as far removed as possible from the somber beginnings of Lent! I’m certainly not advocating celebrating spring’s arrival by getting drunk, but this is a wonderful piece of music, and you can also take the “drunkenness” metaphorically, as the exuberance of becoming bedazzled by the beauty of nature and the miraculous nature of the season:
Wenn nur ein Traum das Leben ist,
Warum denn Müh’ und Plag’!?
Ich trinke, bis ich nicht mehr kann,
Den ganzen, lieben Tag!
Und wenn ich nicht mehr trinken kann,
Weil Kehl’ und Seele voll,
So tauml’ ich bis zu meiner Tür
Und schlafe wundervoll!
Was hör’ ich beim Erwachen? Horch!
Ein Vogel singt im Baum.
Ich frag’ ihn, ob schon Frühling sei,
Mir ist als wie im Traum.
Der Vogel zwitschert: Ja!
Der Lenz ist da, sei kommen über Nacht!
Aus tiefstem Schauen lauscht’ ich auf,
Der Vogel singt und lacht!
Ich fülle mir den Becher neu
Und leer’ ihn bis zum Grund
Und singe, bis der Mond erglänzt
Am schwarzen Firmament!
Und wenn ich nicht mehr singen kann,
So schlaf’ ich wieder ein.
Was geht mich denn der Frühling an!?
Laßt mich betrunken sein!
If life is but a dream,
why work and worry?
I drink until I no more can,
the whole, blessed day!
And if I can drink no more
as throat and soul are full,
then I stagger to my door
and sleep wonderfully!
What do I hear on waking? Hark!
A bird sings in the tree.
I ask him if it’s spring already;
to me it’s as if I’m in a dream.
The bird chirps Yes!
The spring is here, it came overnight!
From deep wonderment I listen;
the bird sings and laughs!
I fill my cup anew
and drink it to the bottom
and sing until the moon shines
in the black firmament!
And if I can not sing,
then I fall asleep again.
What to me is spring?
Let me be drunk!