Lent is a season of forty days that begin with Ash Wednesday and end with lighting the First Fire and the Paschal Candle at the Easter Vigil.
During the week of the Last Sunday after Epiphany, comes a popular feasting day called Shrove Tuesday. "Shrove" is a Middle English word (past tense for shrive) that refers to making a confession and receiving absolution. In the English tradition pancake suppers are a favorite offering for Shrove Tuesday. It is also marked with collecting the dried palm fronds from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebration to be burned and used for the following day, Ash Wednesday. This intentionally connects our failure as God's people to live into the kingdom, proclaimed during Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem, when the people hailed him as the Messiah [Matthew 21.9].
Outside of Anglicanism, Shrove Tuesday is better known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. It is a day of feasting, because it marks the last day to eat rich foods – to clean out the cupboards before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is a day of fasting. There are two mandatory fasts in Lent: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It should be noted that exceptions are made for the elderly, those who are ill and children.
Unfortunately, some people view Mardi Gras (like Saint Patrick's Day) as permission to get drunk and take their clothes off. (One wonders if they will enter the solemnity of Lent with equal enthusiasm.) Ironically, the purpose of Lent, which is well expressed in the lessons and pleadings of Ash Wednesday, is aimed to help us recognize how destructive sin is; that we are in desperate need of a Saviour. “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” revealed Saint Paul [Romans 3.23].
Ash Wednesday uses language and imagery that sound hauntingly similar to the Prayer Book's graveside service: “dust to dust, and ashes to ashes.” As the black ashes are imposed on the penitent's forehead in the sign of the cross, she hears, “Remember O woman thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”
Sin and evil come with a horrific price: there must be a reckoning of accounts. Sin is not undone by a dose of Tylenol, nor by a visit to an abortion clinic. There is no justice in that. Imagine a rapist offering a candy bar to his victim and flippantly saying “Sorry” in the process. Who would think that was adequate justice? And yet we expect much more of God, if we expect anything at all. We expect Him to be pleased with our cavalier “sorries” as if we are exempt from the same justice that we expect for others. Others must pay, but surely God isn't bothered by what I do. [See 2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12]
The forty days of Lent invite us to sincerely examine our relationship with God, to urge us out of rationalization and self-justification, and toward repentance and reconciliation.
Within the church community, the atmosphere of Lent changes in a number ways: Crosses are veiled in purple; God's people are called to fast. Alleluias, Glorias and flowers are omitted from the Liturgies. In short, we are made to consider life without the love and mercy of Christ.
We are also invited to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land by means of walking the Stations of the Cross where Jesus' Passion is remembered. In the Middle Ages Christians would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Holy Week. Over time, a tradition of setting up artistic replicas of the Stations at one's local parish became popular for those who could not go to Jerusalem. Thereby making it possible for everyone to make a Lenten pilgrimage.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Matthew 11:28, (ESV)
Matthew 11:28, (ESV)
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