This is an updated version of our first blog post from back in 2012.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. The season of Lent (40 days) is a time when Christians traditionally prepare themselves for the biggest day in Christendom - Easter Sunday. As such, Lent is intended to be a season of personal reflection and for some, penitence. Although penitence is no longer a commonly used term, it simply means that we express remorse or sorrow over our shortcomings and faults. In order to honestly examine ourselves, we have to engage in some type of personal reflection. For this reason, penitence and reflection are inextracably linked. Penitence is also associated with self-denial or abstinence, which are used as means of ”purging” oneself of unwanted habits and/or character traits. This is where the religious cultural tradition of “giving something up for Lent” comes from. In fact, in recent years it has become fairly common for people to give up Facebook for Lent or to post a status update about what they plan to “give up” for the season.
Last night, many people around the world unknowingly participated in another cultural tradition linked to this religious season. I’m talking about Mardi Gras, which literally means Fat Tuesday in French. Because I live in the United States, I typically associate Mardi Gras with the city of New Orleans. In recent years, Mardi Gras has grown into a raucous, often hedonistic event where many people feel free to eat, drink, and indulge themselves to excess. In that regard, it is a significantly modified expression of a religious tradition that had a much more noble beginning. The name Fat Tuesday comes from the tradition of slaughtering and feasting upon a fattened calf on the last day before Lent. This day is also known as Shrove Tuesday (from the old English “to shrive” or hear confession), Pancake Tuesday, or in Germany - fetter Dienstag. The custom of making pancakes comes from the need to use up fat, eggs and dairy products before the fasting and abstinence of Lent was to begin. Despite the vast disparity between modern Mardi Gras celebrations and the original intent of Fat Tuesday, there is one concession to the old traditions that is still practiced. In New Orleans, the police and city sanitation department begin clearing and cleaning up the streets of the French Quarter exactly at midnight – the beginning of Lent.
Psalm 139, verses 23-24 says: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. This year, instead of practicing self-denial or abstinence (“not doing”), I encourage you to join me in “doing” something…perhaps serving others in a special way, seeking to change how you typically interact with others, or taking a new, positive approach to some aspect of your life. On the other hand, if you honestly feel that abstinence is what is needed, pursue it with equal vigor. In either case, let us strive to see Lent as a season of preparation for the big day – the day upon which all our hopes and desires as Christians are based.