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I was on a call this past week with some other pastors, and the leader asked how many people had had pancakes the previous day. I thought to myself, “what a strange question to ask”. Then he commented that he didn’t see very many people with crosses on their foreheads. A lot of people would have still been clueless. But years of theological education finally kicked in at that point. Ah, yes. It is Ash Wednesday, the kick-off to Lent. And yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, also known as Pancake Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. And I had no idea until this very moment. Which shows you how “low church” I am, how little passion I have for the traditional “church calendar”.
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For those of you who find yourself in the same boat as me, or who are new to all of this and are still puzzling over how eating pancakes can be a spiritual exercise (sign me up!), here’s a brief explanation. Lent is the period of 40 days (excluding Sundays) before Easter Sunday. Since about the 4th century (in other words, this isn’t anything that’s “biblical” in terms of being set out by Jesus, unlike baptism or the Lord’s Supper), many Christians have “observed” Lent. This has typically been a period of time characterized by solemnity, by fasting, by abstaining from the normal conveniences of the world, in order to prepare oneself for celebrating the cross and resurrection. It draws its inspiration from other periods of “40” in the Bible that were about preparation: Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness in Luke 4 before inaugurating his public ministry, the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness after leaving Egypt, before entering the promised land, the 40 days of rain in Noah’s day before the world could be re-made.
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The period is kicked off by Ash Wednesday, which happened this past week. In other words, if this is the first you’ve heard of Lent this year, let’s say for example because your pastor is negligent with ancient tradition, you’ve already messed up Lent (just kidding!). At an Ash Wednesday service, there will often be a ceremony where you’ll have a cross painted on your forehead or your hand as a reminder of your frailty and need for Jesus. The day before that (Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Day/Mardi Gras) is, in the worst case scenario, a day for unabashed binging on badness before beginning Lent, or in the best case scenario a day to repent of sins. The pancake thing comes from a ban on a lot of those ingredients by the Medieval Catholic Church during Lent, so people would cook a whack load of flapjacks on the last possible day and fill themselves up.
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So where does that leave us? Lent has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the Protestant Church, even among a lot of “low church” types of people. Again, there’s nothing biblically necessary about it, nothing mandated. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with it either. And it can be a really helpful way to bring focus and direction to our discipleship in this season. A lot of Christians these days choose to fast from something particular during Lent- maybe it’s sugar, maybe it’s streaming services or social media, maybe it’s fasting from a meal regularly (something we’ve already encouraged our church to do in prayer). Don’t fast from a sin- you should be abstaining from that all the time as it is! Many Christians will also choose to engage in something deliberately as well- maybe reading through all the Gospels during this period of time, or going on a personal prayer retreat. These are great ideas! I recommend you pick something to abstain from, and something else to engage in.
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And if, like me, you’re late to the party this year, you just have about two less days of solemnity and fasting. You can make it up on Sundays. And blame/thank your tradition-negligent pastor.