The rhythm of feasting and fasting

Next week, the church will celebrate a couple of special days in its calendar—Shrove Tuesday, followed by Ash Wednesday.

Yme Woensdregt

Next week, the church will celebrate a couple of special days in its calendar—Shrove Tuesday, followed by Ash Wednesday.

Shrove Tuesday is better known these days as either Mardi Gras or Pancake Tuesday. It’s a day of feasting and partying before the season of Lent, which begins on the following day.

The day gets its name from the ritual of “shriving”—an ancient word for making confession and receiving forgiveness. Over 1,000 years ago, a monk wrote, “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him.” (Anglo–Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes).

From earliest times, Lent was a time to engage in spiritual disciplines. It is still common for many people to ask, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Not surprisingly, people saw the Tuesday as an opportunity to celebrate before the discipline of Lent.

The tradition of “Pancake Tuesday” has its roots in the Lenten discipline of fasting. People would avoid certain rich foods during Lent, such as meat, fish, fats, eggs, and milky foods.

Before refrigeration and pasteurization, food could not be preserved. A community feast would be held on the “shriving Tuesday”, and since pancakes used up all the eggs, fats and milk in the house, they quickly became associated with Shrove Tuesday. Many churches honour this tradition by holding pancake suppers on this day (including Christ Church—all are welcome!)

Mardi Gras has its roots in the same practice. It literally means “fat Tuesday”, a day in which a thrifty housewife would use up all the fats so that it wouldn’t spoil.

On the following day, the season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. While Lent has gotten a bad rep as a joyless season, it is not really so. Lent is a time for Christians to reflect more deeply and more intentionally about our loyalty to God.

In the ancient church, Lent was a time to prepare for the great festival of baptism at Easter. When a person is baptized, they are initiated into the church. We receive the gift of God’s presence in our lives, and in turn we promise to live faithfully as God’s people in the world, “God being our helper.”

On Ash Wednesday, many Christians attend special services at their churches. Worshippers are marked with the sign of the cross on their foreheads with ashes. The ashes are a symbol of mourning, repentance and mortality. It echoes ancient Biblical traditions of covering one’s head with ashes as a sign of sorrow.

In one of the traditional Ash Wednesday prayers, we pray, “Almighty God, from the dust of the earth you have created us. May these ashes be for us a sign of our mortality and penitence.” On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortality, of the frailty and uncertainty of human life. Despite all our best efforts, we cannot secure our lives on this earth.

On Ash Wednesday, we acknowledge our brokenness as human beings, and our failure to be the best people we can be. To say that we are sinful is not a matter of beating ourselves up. I know there are many whose memories are that the church emphasizes what I call “worm theology” — you  know what I mean: “We’re no good, we’re lower than worms, so forgive us.”

But repentance and confession are not about making ourselves feel bad. When we confess, we’re not saying that there is no good in us. Rather, we acknowledge that we are broken and are in need of healing. We admit that we are lost, and need help finding our way home. We have imprisoned ourselves or been imprisoned, and we need to be set free again. We stop denying that we are often in despair, that we need to be delivered and we can’t do it for ourselves.

Confession seeks healing. We ask to be led home to our truest self, our best self. We seek freedom and liberation.

We come forward to have our foreheads marked with the sign of the cross. We hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. Repent, and believe the gospel.” We hear again that we need to evaluate our lives. Are we living as God’s faithful people in the world? Do our lives make a difference for good in the world? Do we attract others to walk in the way of Christ with us?

Then, a few moments later, we come forward again, this time for Communion. We receive the life–giving nourishment of God’s love for us. We are fed, nurtured by Christ’s body within us. We are strengthened and made whole again, ready to proclaim God’s goodness for the world.

Do you want to take some time to re-evaluate your priorities and loyalties? Do you need healing in your life? Do you need to take time to reflect on what’s truly important?

Then I invite you to join us at Christ Church on Ash Wednesday, March 5 at 7 p.m.