Everything you ever wanted to know about Lent, explained

4 mins read
fish fry
A sign hangs outside the parish hall of St. Mary's Church in Altoona, Pa., prior to a fish fry. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The confessional blob

Dear Simcha,

Obviously I want to get to confession sometime during Lent, and I have examined my conscience and cleared my schedule. I can deal with unhelpful or annoying priests (because I know they’re still acting in persona Christi), and I can deal with pushy, rude fellow Catholics, because it’s easy to remember to offer it up when you’re right there in church. But, Simcha, there’s no line. No line! There’s just a blob of people vaguely centered around the confessional, and every time someone new shows up, they look confused, smile nervously, and then park themselves in some random spot. It is anarchy, and it drives me absolutely out of my gourd. It would be so simple to just post a sign telling people where to form a line for confession. Why is this so hard?

Line Lover

Dear Lover,

Jesus actually had a parable about this, although it usually gets the “omit portion in brackets for shorter reading” treatment because it’s a hard teaching. In this passage, Jesus tells the Sanhedrin about the time a certain king was giving out riches to all his subjects, and all they had to do was line up like normal people and they would get some, and it was a really good deal for them. But they couldn’t do it. They just couldn’t line up, even though it was easy! So he got mad and BLEW UP THE PLANET, because it is RIDICULOUS. Even the Good Shepherd has his limits. Sorry. You could always dress up like an elderly Italian nun and just elbow your way through to the front, and nobody will have the guts to stop you. This only works if you are less than five feet tall, though.

Low-fat, scraped raccoon

Dear Simcha,

I’m really running out of ideas for meatless meals. If I serve pasta, eggs, tuna or beans to my family one more time, I’ll have a revolt on my hands. Any ideas for how to keep them from starving while staying in the Church’s good graces?

Fed up with fasting

Dear Fed,

Three words for you: Joy Of Cooking. Yes, the answer is in this venerable cookbook that used to grace the kitchen of every American house, Catholic or not. But the catch is, you have to find one of the vintage editions, that shows you, WITH ILLUSTRATIONS, how to prepare choice meats like possum, raccoon or squirrel. I haven’t opened my copy in a while, but I feel like I remember a lot of 24-hour baths in lye (for the raccoon, not you) and scraping (also for the raccoon). Friend, there is no ban on cooking meat on Fridays in Lent; there is only a ban on consuming it. So break out your finest lye and dish up a generous portion of old Irma’s fabulous scraped raccoon. Then we’ll see who’s revolting, and who manages to abstain from meat.

Note: This won’t actually work, but it will give your kids something else to talk about with their therapists besides the same old “I felt so unvalidated, blah blah blah.”

A young volunteer displays food prepared for dinners served at a Friday evening fish fry at Sweetest Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Detroit. Planning Friday Lenten meals or volunteering together are activities families can do during Lent. (CNS photo/Jim West)

Fish-fry extravaganza

Dear Simcha,

My parish hosts lavish fish fries on Fridays where people gather around in the cozy church basement and yuk it up with their pals and stuff themselves with delicious batter-fried fish and homemade french fries, and sometimes, they even have brownies with ice cream for dessert. Doesn’t this send something of a mixed signal in this season of penitence?


Dear Newbie,

There are two ways of looking at this situation. One is to recall the old Latin proverb, “Ubi dubium, ibi libertas,” which means if you go around squinting hard enough, you can do whatever you want, and if anyone challenges you, you can quote Latin proverbs at them and they will go away. The other way is to recognize that, no, this isn’t a mixed signal. It’s a very clear sign that your parish is what we call, in ecclesiastical terms, “silly.” To manage this situation, stay home, open a can of tuna, and give ten bucks to the next panhandler you meet. Because that is Jesus.


Penitential scorecard

Dear Simcha,

You’re a professional Catholic, so level with me: Do I get more points for doing more penances? I do, right?

Hardcore Killin’ It

Dear It,

Yes, definitely. The points will appear in your spiritual records in a special zip file titled “Good Thing Scripture Never Said Anything About God’s Free Gift Of Grace Or This Would Be Awkward,” and in it, you will see an up-to-the-minute pie chart displaying all the different ways you are personally earning heaven entirely by your own efforts. For a small subscription fee, you can also get access to an app that displays, in real-time, how your soul is doing compared to the souls of your friends and family. We find that gamifying the spiritual life is the best way to make huge gains, and it’s really motivating to watch yourself leaving widows and orphans in the dust. If you have any questions, you can always call 1-800-MRT-LUTHR and if he’s free, he might actually pay you a visit. Right at your door.

The origin of ‘Lent’

Dear Simcha,

Somebody told me that “Lent” is actually an acronym for “Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking,” and it’s always been a time for focusing on our sense of self-worth as valuable members of God’s organization. But someone else told me that’s a foolish modern innovation, and it actually stands for “laborare errare nobis tacitumitas” and it has something to do with hard work making you silent? But when I ran that past my Latin teacher, she just gave a little shudder and pulled a flask out of her top drawer, and wouldn’t even look at me. So where does the word “Lent” actually come from?

Little Miss Etty Mology

Dear Miss,

It is a word that comes directly from the Middle English word “Lent,” which comes from the Old English word “Lencten,” which is derived from the proto-Germanic “lengentumpen” which means “quit trying to be cute.” Lent is Lent. You guys know what Lent is. Say your prayers, make with the alms, and don’t touch that burger. That’s what Lent means. 

Simcha Fisher

Simcha Fisher is an award-winning columnist who regularly contributes to America Magazine, Parable Magazine and The Catholic Weekly. She lives with her husband and eight of their 10 children and several animals in a surprisingly small house in New Hampshire.