Why do people eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday?
Why do people put ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday?
What is Lent and why do people “give something up” for it?
Every year these things starting happening and I often get a bunch of questions about their meaning and history. So I thought I’d blog about it. Here is a super-short summary for your maple syrupy fun, and also for your deeper craving for spiritual renewal.
Technically, the word ‘Lent’ comes from an older word meaning “spring,” quite simply because this time of year roughly coincides with the coming of spring.
Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter. If you do the math on your calendar and it doesn’t add up that’s because you don’t count Sundays. Lent is a time of spiritual preparation for the ground zero of the Christian faith: Easter.
I remember that John Irving novel A Prayer for Owen Meany. In it he says, “Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer.” I love his passion!
This is the day before Lent begins. The name comes from a practice in England to “shrive” on this day. That is when we seek and receive forgiveness for our sins. It’s a part of getting ready for the season of Lent.
But where do pancakes come in? Since people often fast during Lent, an old custom was to get rid of fatty foods. People would often use up fat (particularly in pancakes) before Lent. Because of this it is also called “Fat Tuesday.”
I recall a moving service when I was worshiping at St. Andrew’s Church in Toronto. The minister, Will Ingram, reminded us that the ashes we received on our heads were a sign of our mortality. He started his message by saying that one of the things we all had in common was that we were all going to die. It was powerful to leave the service and travel on the subway with a visible sign of my faith (and mortality) on my forehead. I was also surprised to see how many others had the ashes.
Ashes represent our “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” mortality. At least to this life. It is a time of penitence and sorrow for our brokenness and sin.
I should also note that some churches have Ash Wednesday services, but not all. It just depends on the congregation and their local customs.
So are you giving anything up for Lent this year? That’s another question I get. And then people sometimes ask, “Is that something I should do?” It’s up to you!
But here’s my advice. Think of your spiritual preparation for Easter not so much a “giving up” but as a “taking upon” yourself. Take upon yourself something to renew and open your receptivity to the Way and presence of God. The frost is receding and it’s time for the blossom to step forward. You can do this with taking up practices that are meant to help your faith grow. Some of the most popular are: acts of charity or kindness, or Bible reading, or more regular worship attendance, or more intentional prayer, or giving up certain kinds of foods (this can be connected to fasting).
In the past I’ve “given up” many things—some easier than others. I’ve always found food tough; but the practice can be more meaningful if it is replaced with something. But my advice to you is to not make it something too easy. Don’t cheapen the exercise. Engage in something that will open you to the coming mystery and power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in a new way.
Challenge yourself to change.
Are you facing a difficult decision in your life? Are you stuck with something? Or are you hungry for renewal? Use the 40 days as a time to focus on and cultivate your relationship with God.
The number 40 is significant. The great flood was for 40 days; Moses was up the mountain 40 days; the Hebrews wandered through the wilderness 40 years; Jesus was tempted by the Devil for 40 days. After each experience, a new thing happened. A God thing happened. The same can be true for you.
It’s no coincidence that full-term for a pregnancy is about 40 weeks. How will Lent rebirth you?