When I was a Baha’i, another Baha’i mentioned that she was teaching (i.e. talking about the Faith to a non-Baha’i) a Christian and told her that the Baha’i Fast is sort of like Lent. In this year, 2022, the Baha’i Fast and Lent happen to begin on the same day, March 2, so I think this is a good opportunity to talk about these two traditions and see how similar they actually are.
What is Lent?
Lent is a season of the Christian year in which Christians abstain from certain foods or do other things as a way of strengthening their spiritual life. It is observed for 40 days before Easter. In modern Roman Catholicism, people do this by giving up something they like, and/or by doing some extra act of service or charity. Traditionally Catholics gave up meat, but nowadays most give up something else, like sweets or TV or social media.
It is traditional in Christianity to observe a season of fast and abstinence (called a penitential season) prior to a major feast day. In Catholicism the two main penitential seasons are Advent, the season preceding Christmas Day on December 25, and Lent, the season preceding Easter which usually occurs in April.
Easter is the most important holiday in Christianity, commemorating the Resurrection of Christ. That makes Lent the most important penitential season of the year.
Note: Not all Christians observe Lent, but most do. Catholics, Orthodox, and mainline Protestants (e.g. Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians) observe Lent in some form. That represents around 75% of the world’s Christians. Pentecostals, Baptists, and Evangelicals (including so-called “non-denominationals”), the Christians that many English-speaking Baha’is are most familiar with, do not observe Lent.
What is the Baha’i Fast?
The Baha’i Fast is a period of 19 days (which is one Baha’i month) during which Baha’is abstain from eating or drinking anything between sunrise and sunset. It ends with Naw-Ruz, the first day of the new year on the Baha’i calendar. Naw-Ruz always falls on the March equinox (i.e. the Spring equinox in the northern hemisphere), so the fast always starts around March 1–2.
Are they similar?
Was my Baha’i friend justified in calling the Baha’i Fast “sort of like Lent”? Yes, I think it’s a fine comparison.
The fundamental purpose of both is the same. You give up good things that you like so you can focus more on God. Catholicism and the Baha’i Faith both recognize that God created the world and the world is good, but we can allow the good world to distract us from the Ultimate Good. By abstaining from those things, we remember that our happiness and well being don’t depend on these created things but on God.
For me, remembrance is the key thing in fasting. When I was a Baha’i, during the Fast I would get hungry and think, “I should eat something,” and then a second later I’d remember, “Oh yeah, it’s the Fast.” My hunger reminded me of God. Then at sunset, when I could eat again, I’d remember God again, because it was God’s law that had said I could eat again after sunset.
Now, as a Catholic, it’s a similar experience. I give something up for Lent. Then, when I want to go do that thing I remember, “No, I’m not doing that, because it’s Lent.” And then Sunday rolls around, or Easter comes, and I can do that thing again, I remember God again, knowing that I get to have this nice thing because God made it, and also that Sundays and Easter are special days.
How the Baha’i Fast and Lent are different
While they are similar in their overall purpose, they are not directly related to each other and are practiced differently.
- Lent is for 40 days. The Baha’i Fast is for 19 days.
- During Lent, your abstinence (giving something up) lasts 24 hours a day. During the Baha’i Fast, you avoid all food and drink, but only during daylight hours.
So the Baha’i Fast involves giving up more things but over a short period of time, while Catholic Lent lasts longer – more days and more hours of the day.
Which one is better?
I don’t think either one is “better” than the other. One might be better suited to an individual’s personality rather than another one.
Personally I find Lent more challenging. Going hungry during the Baha’i Fast was hard, but it’s only for 12 hours and then you can eat whatever you want. On the other hand, giving up chocolate during Lent is really painful for me, because I have to go days and days without it.
I could see how a Baha’i might think Catholic Lent is lame, because you choose the thing you give up. But that puts more responsibility on the individual Catholic to choose a item that would be a big deal to them. Yes, an individual Catholic could cheat by giving up something they don’t care about anyway. But there are ways to cheat the system with the Baha’i Fast, too, by staying up all night and sleeping half the day. If you follow the intent of each practice, they both achieve the desired result, which is to center your thoughts on God and train you not to be focused so much on created things.