Pancakes and Ashes

“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”
Ecclesiastes 8:15

 Pancakes and ashes. What do the two together have to do with the season of Lent? For me the peculiar juxtaposition of the two in the liturgical year relates to the equally peculiar and powerful juxtaposition of feasting and fasting—and then feasting again—in Christian spiritual life.

Shrove Tuesday, also called Fat Tuesday, is the last day of carnival or Mardi Gras, a final day of celebration and feasting each year on the edge of the wilderness journey of fasting. During the Middle Ages, Christians “shrove” or sought absolution before the start of Lent. Shrove Tuesday was the last day of “Shrovetide.” Shrove Tuesday is known in some parts of the world today as Pancake Day. On Pancake Day, we eat our feast-fill because, as the Shrove Tuesday text from Ecclesiastes says—“for tomorrow we die.” Ash Wednesday. A day of “dying.”

Ash Wednesday’s “day of dying” marks the beginning of Lent. The origins of Ash Wednesday are rooted in the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Both Lent and Yom Kippur emphasize fasting and self and communal reflection. Christian worshippers today mark their foreheads with ashes to mark the start of Lent’s 40 days of fasting. Why ashes? In Scripture, ashes symbolize death (Genesis 18:27), judgment (Ezekiel 28:18), lament (Esther 4:3), and repentance (Jonah 3: 6). Ashes are also associated in the bible with fasting (Daniel 9:3 and Isaiah 58:5). Some burial liturgies include the phrase, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” spoken as dirt is sprinkled into the gravesite; both the ashes and the dust symbolize the finality of death. Both also symbolize life and growth. Fasting and feasting merge, it seems, as ashes and soil intermingle.

Feasting to fasting to feasting again is a liturgical arc encompassing the Lent/Easter seasons. In Eastern Christian traditions, Lent is called the Great Fast and Easter’s 50 days the Great Feast. During Lent, some traditions bury the Alleluia—we fast from this word of celebration—to enter into spiritual quiet—to let our spiritual soil rebuild for the springtime to come. But this work is not only symbolic or metaphorical spiritual work; it has to do with concrete realities of living in a world where too many people endure fasts that they did not choose. To choose to fast during Lent is a privilege for many of us.

Consider: this season reminds us that we were made from the soil and that we eventually return to the soil. We are dependent upon the dirt of the earth—the sacrificial gifts of the earth—to eat and live. Christians sometimes think of fasting as a kind of contract with God; I’ll give up “x” in order that “y” might come to pass. But what if fasting has more to do with the rhythms of harvest and the gift-bearing wonders of the dirt from which we come and to which we will return. What if fasting teaches us how to live more redemptively with the earth and calls us to work with greater passion and urgency for Isaiah’s grand feast where there is plenty for all?

Ε. Β. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, writes of his wife Katherine, an avid gardener, who every year in the fall, even in the fall of that year when she knew she likely would not live to see the spring, headed out to the garden to plant bulbs in her garden:

Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katharine would get into a shabby old Brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes, and proceed to the director’s chair, a folding canvas thing…at the edge of the plot. There she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, while Henry produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basketful of old ones, ready for the intricate interment.

As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion. . . her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.*

Historically, Christians fasted each Friday to recall Jesus’ death. Sunday was always considered a feast day, even during Lent. Between Sunday and Friday, eating practices were more “normal.” Perhaps the feasting and fasting themes of Lenten biblical texts can help us to embrace this historic sacred rhythm in our daily lives. Or we can consider again that the central meal of Christian worship consists of simple basics, bread and wine, that shared in community become a nourishing feast of radical welcome and promise of food for all. The possibility of such a Lenten consideration is a restored relationship to food—to earth’s good dirt—to each other in a world where too many are hungry.

So Lent begins. And despite all that is wrong in the world and our uncertainties about what the future holds, we yet again take up the radical Gospel work of plotting the resurrection.

 

*from E. B. White, “Introduction” in K. S. White, Onward and Upward in the Garden.

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Answered Prayers

Dr. William Barber, II, is a hero. He wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the New York Times on February 3, 2017, following the National Prayer Breakfast. I have continued to think about that letter and the powerful words he quoted from Frederick Douglass (1818-1895): “I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
*********
“These times we’re living in
call for courageous people,”
the preacher said that day.

I am not brave.
Never have been.

Bravery is something to be
read about in storybooks
where quixotic heroes
ride out on prancing
stallions to do battle,
sabers flashing in
magnificent sunlight.

Bravery is something to be
prayed for in church
where harsh living
daylights must first pass
by saintly stained-glass
sentinels of bygone years
before being transmuted
into the kinder, gentler
beams that caress Sunday
morning’s bowed heads.

Isn’t it?

Or maybe we should
pray for freedom,
like Frederick Douglass did,
walking in faith
until our legs are braver
than our thoughts.

So, in this present cloud
of unknowing, being not
brave, we resolve, if
we can find the honesty
to do it, to live on
as best we can,
stringing together each
momentary breath
like pearls of hope to
place with the gentleness
of a lover around our
fear to name its wounds
as our own and journey on
not in spite of
but with it.

For out there, where the
times we’re living in
call for courageous people,
the groaning ground that
soaked up the life-blood of
all who died unjustly just
trying to live
needs the redeeming touch
of feet determined to walk
with their fear until
their legs have learned
to move each day to the
rhythms of justice,
mercy, and love.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge is in the news this week because of a controversial four-lane highway tunnel designed to be built underneath the ancient site. Reflecting on this mysterious monument and its much lauded geometric perfection, I wrote this poem in an experimental (for me) fashion–circular, with each three-word phrase containing seven syllables–for perfection or wholeness. The one-word lines each contain four syllables; on the fourth day, God completed the material universe. The beginning and ending lines each have fourteen syllables.

stonehenge

". . .if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?"