Recently we were encountered by Shrove Tuesday. It is the day before Lent officially begins. The word Shrove is an odd word, that comes from the ancient word “shrive” – a word meaning, “to be forgiven.” On the Tuesday before the 40 days of Lent begins, those who wanted to take spiritual renewal seriously, started the season a day early.
As the people of Israel removed all leaven from their houses before Passover, earnest Christians wanted to do spring cleaning of their hearts and lives before they even entered the door to the season of Lent. On this day they came to the church to confess their sins, receive absolution, and ask for counsel on how to use the coming days to better strengthen their faith.
In our Consumer Culture we changed the name to Pancake Tuesday. Eggs and meat were seen as delicacies which a person might give up during lent as part of fasting during the ensuing forty days. Eating a hearty pancake breakfast on Tuesday was a good way to use up these items before Lent began. (This is also one of the reasons we have Easter Eggs. Most of the eggs not eaten over the forty days of Lent ended up being good only for games.)
This day is also called Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday. This is the day when some pile every excess on every excess to have one good (or bad) splurge of every appetite before the fasting begins.
It is strange that those who think of splurging themselves on Mardi Gras hardly ever think of purging themselves over the following 7 weeks!
And then we come to Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the day when Lent officially begins. The day begins by being marked upon the forehead by the dark ashes of the charred remains of last year’s palm branches. The ashes are often applied in the sign of the cross to remind us of the words of our Lord, “If you want to be my disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
These ashes also remind us of the darker elements of human life: they remind us of sin, guilt, shame, grief, and other dark moments of life. The ashes also remind us that our sins caused the death of our Lord. As the ashes are applied, we “repent in sackcloth and ashes” because of our participation in his death.
On this day we are also made aware on this day of our own mortality. On such a day we hear the words “From dust you come and to dust you return.” At a funeral we hear the words “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes.” We are reminded of those words, not to make us morbid, but to help us face the reality of our own mortality. Those words help us face the brevity of life and our need to use time wisely.
Forty Days of Lent
Arriving at Ash Wednesday means we have also entered into the season of Lent, where for the next forty days we enter into a time of spiritual reflection and renewal.
Why do we call it Lent? It refers to the lengthening of the days as we approach Spring. The nights are getting noticeably shorter and the days are getting longer. We can now look forward to new growth and renewed life.
Why forty days? It was a long a tradition in the Christian Church to have people baptized on Easter Sunday. Baptismal candidates were called upon to fast, search their hearts, pray and prepare themselves for the 40 days prior to their baptism. It also became the practice for the rest of the church to share with the candidates in this time of preparation with a renewal of their own baptismal vows.
It was also the time for the church to focus upon the sufferings of Christ. Jesus began his sufferings for us in the wilderness experience when he fasted for 40 days. The church recognized the supreme importance of his suffering and death and wanted to share with Him in his sufferings. It is too easy to forget important issues in the face of so many urgent issues, and so the church gives us 40 days to focus each year on His suffering & death.
This time was seen as a time for spiritual renewal. Jesus fasted 40 days before he began his ministry. Moses and Elijah did the same. These 40 days are for the deepening of our lives and the deepening of our commitment to God in order that we too can effectively do the work of God.
The ancient church gave advice on how to use this season well. They suggested:
- First, we deny ourselves something that we value. We do not give up a particular sin, those we give up as soon as we discover them. In Lent we give up something we value. We deny something that pampers our life, to share intentionally in his sacrifice. Some give up meat, deserts, coffee, TV, Facebook, or miss certain meals of the day or the week.
- Second, we take up our cross. We take on the sign of the cross at the beginning of the Lenten season, but we also take on something that we might not normally do. We take on a ministry to others that we might find difficult and demanding. Some of the resource people who understand spiritual growth are convinced that the chief way of experiencing the grace of God was to do something for others who could give nothing to us in return, to participate in the life of those who suffered. In fact, surrendering expensive foods for one’s self, make it possible to take that money to relieve the suffering of those who were always poor and hungry. So, during Lent we not only identify with the suffering of Christ, but we also identify with the suffering people of our world. We experience their hunger, their deprivations, and their loss.
Some have noted that the Lenten season is longer than 40 days. It is actually 46 days. The ancient church was not poor at mathematics. It was quite wise. Prolonged sadness, they knew, can be damaging. Continued penitence can make us morbid. To prevent this, Lent is punctuated with six Sundays prior to that seventh and greatest of all the Sundays of the year which is Easter Sunday! The six Sundays are to remind us that celebration, not sadness, is to mark the life of the believer.
Which brings us to Easter Sunday. It was early on Sunday morning when the unbelievable happened. On that great Resurrection Morning, Jesus was raised from death more than conqueror. He came to his church and said to our troubled hearts, “peace be with you!”
The fasting of Lent must cease. The sadness must come to an end. His resurrection is the demonstration that our sins have been forgiven, and our weakened lives may now be strengthened by the power of His resurrection. We have no choice but to enter into joy. The fasting is over. Let us eat and drink and make merry. Let us baptize new believers. Let the weddings re-commence. Why? For He is risen indeed!
Hungering for Easter
But we have not yet arrived at Easter. We are still in Lent. We have weeks to go before that great day. What do we do in the meantime?
In North America we used to be known as citizens, now we are known as consumers. On this continent we have developed gargantuan appetites for all consumables. We devour more food, more water, more manufactured goods, more drugs, more fuel and more medical resources than any other people around the world and throughout world history. We have become so wealthy that we rarely have to say “no” to any appetite or wish. Lent is a wonderful time to renew thepractice of putting limits to our consumption.
It is why fasting is such an important part of Lent
- Fasting is an intentional act of identifying with the suffering of Jesus for us, as Paul says. “I want to share in the fellowship of his sufferings.”
- Fasting is an intentional act of identifying ourselves with the suffering of the world.
It is to feel hunger as others experience it. It is to experience desire with no chance of fulfillment.
- Fasting is an intentional decision to spend less on ourselves so we can spend more on the needs of others.
- It also serves as a string around our finger, reminding us of our calling… “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
The Benefit of failing at fasting.
I read recently an article that said “Lent is a time for abstaining from the things that disconnect us from the divine, from God, from that which gives us life. For 40 days, we set aside distractions and vices in order to practice self-denial, focus on repentance, seek clarity in prayer, and pursue intimacy with God and others.”
- But, I must confess that I am not very good at fasting. In fact, I am a dismal failure. Should I give up coffee for the season, or just one day a week? That is a bridge too far.
- Should I give up TV. I can’t do that. I am addicted to watching the news.
- Recently I decided to give up reading novels. For an entire day I gave it up. Then I discovered that I couldn’t focus on spiritual things, only on what I was giving up. I decided one day was enough.
- When I fast, I cannot take my mind off my stomach, When I kneel to pray, I cannot get my mind off my aching knees, and so it goes.
So, it is during this season I relearn some truths about myself. I am a weak and cowardly man. I do not handle suffering well. Like New Year’s resolutions that rarely last a week, so it is during Lent. Lent causes me to lose any vanity, any presumptions that I am a mature follower of Jesus Christ my Lord. Mea culpa!