What do you associate the month of March with? I always think of it as the beginning of Lent, the period of fasting before Easter that lasts fifty-five days. I also can’t think of Lent without the weather that is prevalent during that season.
The days in March are long. They are hot and dry and draining. As I walk home from work, the sun hangs brooding and beats down on everything. Even the pavement seems to reflect its unforgiving glare. It seems to me that this is a difficult time to engage in serious dietary restrictions such as must be observed during the eight weeks of Lent (which prohibits even the consumption of water until the church-ordained time).
Fasting, the total or partial abstinence from food or water for any duration of time, is something human beings have practiced for most of recorded history. Although people fast for any number of reasons, the most common are to help bring about spiritual insights and to fulfill religious rites.
There is also another reason, perhaps less known, for fasting: to facilitate convalescence. This might feel counter-intuitive as our first impulse is usually to feed the sick back to health. Nevertheless, all the major physicians in history, from the Greek Hippocrates to the Arab Avicenna, prescribed fasting as an effective remedy during the critical stages of a disease. Plato and Socrates are said to have fasted for ten days at a time to “attain mental and physical efficiency.”
Today, the practice of fasting has been refined and applied not only as an effective treatment for illness but also as a potent method of disease prevention. This approach is referred to as therapeutic fasting. Intermittent fasting is one sub-category of therapeutic fasting. The regimen of intermittent fasting is not unlike the regimen of Lent in that both require abstinence from eating for up to 14-16 hours a day. But this is where their similarities end.
The primary purpose of intermittent fasting is to deprive the body of carbohydrates for an extended period of time, prompting the cells to metabolize ketones instead of glucose – an energy source much preferred by the brain and which could explain the mental clarity and sharpness reported to be experienced during prolonged hunger. One of the advantages of intermittent fasting is that after breaking fast, there are absolutely no restrictions on the contents of what one may eat. The idea is to set a regular and fixed time during which the process of digestion is not overloaded. Intermittent fasting takes the load off the digestive system and allows the immune system to operate on high alert, redirecting efforts towards cell rejuvenation and overall detoxification of the body. During a fast, even scar tissue is broken down and regenerated with new connective tissue.
The chief religious and spiritual reason for the observance of Lenten fasting is the preparation of adherents for Easter through conformity to a rigorous regimen symbolic of the 40 days and nights of fasting endured by Jesus Christ.
In Lent, many Christians commit not just to fasting but to a drastically changed outlook on life. For instance, one is expected to refrain from extravagant festivities, consumption of alcohol, speaking ill of others, and impure thoughts. Instead, one is encouraged to engage in devotional prayer, acts of charity, penance, and meditations on what it means to be good – all of which are meant to cleanse the soul. Accustoming oneself to lack and shortage during Lent is also believed to foster compassion towards the less fortunate.
The Lenten season’s most fastidious rule dictates that one’s diet be totally vegetarian. Abstention from animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs (also referred to as bloody foods) throughout the 55- day long observance is the hallmark of Eastern Orthodox Church Lent. The driving objective for prescribing vegetarian diet is probably to reinforce a willful refrain from “pleasurable” foods, but what ends up getting served is a set of colorful and spicy dishes dominated by vegetables and legumes. An old favorite is a hot serving of Shiro on freshly baked Injera eaten with a side of leafy, richly seasoned salad.
This highly nutritious diet, in tandem with the regular hours of fasting, serves as a kind of reboot for the body’s systems. If possible, it would be advisable and considerably healthier to practice regular and prolonged fasting throughout the year.
Upon arriving home, parched from the sweltering sun, I find that there is nothing more soothing than a cool glass of flaxseed juice (to say nothing of its health benefits). The body’s ability to adapt its complex cycles and metabolic processes to the strict dietary program demanded by Lent becomes quite evident when we are able to make a smooth transition into the solemn, arduous Holy Week or H’mamat. The Holy Week, the last week of Lent following Palm Sunday and ending on Easter Sunday, is characterized by longer hours of fasting and requires repeated physical exertions during church prayer. Chants of invocations accompanying the repetitive movements can have an almost meditative effect on the mind.
Each day of the Holy Week is significant. The most relevant, traditionally and locally, are the latter half of the week. Holy Thursday, intended to commemorate the Last Supper, is marked by communal fast breaking whilst in church by the end of prayer. In the Tigrigna tradition it is customary to prepare boiled big beans on Holy Thursday. The next day, of course, is Good Friday. Fasting on this day continues well into sundown and the church prayer is a solemn meditation on Christ’s death and burial. After six, when prayers are done, adherents flock to their homes to break their fast. The most common dish served on Good Friday is a leguminous sort of pudding spiced with garlic, parsley and salt, and beaten to a soft frothy consistency. This delicacy is prepared with a thick, peppery sauce placed in its top middle and eaten with slabs of Injera. In the Lenten season, flaxseed juice is a Holy Week drink in many households. A day later is Easter Sunday. But all this, of course, takes place in late April.
Given that March marks the beginning of Spring, the severity of the mid-day sun may be unbearable. But it is somewhat tempered by the oddly cold evenings. On such evenings, when the breeze begins to pick up a chill, nothing feels cozier than the coffee ceremony – as the warmly fragrant waft of incense and roasted coffee beans break the lethargic spell of the late afternoons.