I received a flyer in the mail this week with a picture of a local citizen, smiling, and flipping pancakes, advertising the local Lions’ Club annual pancake supper this coming Tuesday; that means Lent must be just around the corner.
Indeed, Lent begins the next day, on Ash Wednesday. The day before is called Shrove Tuesday (shrove is the past tense of shrive, which means to present oneself to a priest for confession, penance and absolution), or Fat Tuesday, or Pancake Tuesday. In one community where we once lived, it’s called Paczki Day – that’s pronounced poonch-key – thanks to an old Polish tradition of making rich jelly-filled doughnuts. However you look at it, the old tradition behind it is that households would get rid of all their rich foods by cooking them up before giving them up for the season of Lent.
“Lent” simply is an anglicization of a word that means ‘lengthen’, as in the days of spring. From whence came the tradition of giving things up for Lent? It is a season of penitence, a time when believers traditionally sought to draw themselves closer to God through abstinence from certain things, whether chocolate or sex or fat or television.
There are forty days in Lent, which runs from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. But if you use your fingers and toes, and one other person’s fingers and toes, you’ll find that if you count the days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, you will run out of fingers and toes. Why are there only forty days in Lent, but more days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday? Do the math: if you don’t count the Sundays in Lent, you will find there are forty days. Sundays don’t count. Why? Because Christians believe that every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, irrespective of what the liturgical season might be.
That’s why, even if one might choose to give up something for the season of Lent, those things need not be given up on the Sundays in Lent! We are called to celebrate that Jesus is alive each Sunday, so there is no fasting to be done – from anything.
I always ask, when someone tells me that she or he is giving up something for Lent, “Is it drawing you closer to God?” If it isn’t, why bother? It becomes a hollow ritual if it just happens, or worse, we do it just to make ourselves feel good (or righteous). Somehow, with February 14 falling on the first day after the beginning of Lent, I sense that sweets (and maybe sex) may be given up by fewer people this year!
Anyone who wishes to observe Lent through some sort of fast should, I suggest, choose to give up something significant and meaningful if the desire is to be drawn closer to God. When we fast from food, after all, the idea is to be drawn nearer to the Lord with our hunger pangs. If you choose to give up something for Lent, make sure it has an impact on you. If you don’t eat a lot of chocolate, what’s the point of giving up chocolate? It won’t likely draw you closer to God, since you won’t really miss it.
Instead of omitting something, may I suggest that you consider adding something to your life in Lent? Consider serving at a homeless shelter, or inviting a family you don’t know very well from your church or community to share a meal with you. Instead of removing something from your life to give glory to God, think about doing something that will give glory to God. That’s a Lenten discipline that can benefit not only you, but many others.
“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2.10, NIV).
May you know God’s blessing as you prepare to mark Jesus’ journey toward the cross.