This year’s early Easter, March 27 – the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, makes for an early Ash Wednesday. This coming Wednesday, February 10, right between the Super Bowl and Valentines Day
Ash Wednesday, preceded by Shrove Tuesday, is the first day of Lent, that 40-day (with the exception of Sundays) period that will take us past Presidents Day, Super Tuesday, and Saint Patrick’s Day through Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. And then Easter, also the day of the Elite Eight round in this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. The East Regionals will be hosted at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia
At best Lent seems like an anachronism in a world Super Bowls and Super Tuesdays, Valentines, Shamrocks, and March Madness. Why bother? Why learn this odd vocabulary – Shrove Tuesday, Lent, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday?
Okay, maybe I’ll stop by McDonald’s on a Filet-o-Fish Friday, but, really, I’d rather just have a Shamrock Shake.
In the high churches Lent is a penitential season – a time of reflection, remorse, repentance, and confession in preparation for the Easter Vigil and the celebration of the resurrection. In some traditions, the word Alleluia is struck from all the liturgies. Individual believers are encouraged to give up – abstain from some pleasure for the sake of being open to the spiritual disciplines and preparation for renewal.
Lent has never had an easy time of it in a world that does not much like self-denial. Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent begins. The word shrove means “absolve,” and the day was set aside to prepare for Lent – what spiritual and personal issues would be addressed, what sins confessed, and what pleasures denied in the coming Lenten season?
But Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, was always more popular than Shrove Tuesday. If Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of an often-mandatory time of self-denial, Mardi Gras was one last chance for indulging in the pleasures soon to be banned. And since rich foods were not to be eaten, you had to use up what was left of them in the kitchen. Eggs, milk, sugar, lard, were made into pancakes, hence one of the less decadent traditions of the day. The more decadent traditions of Fat Tuesday will be on display in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, and a thousand other places in four more days.
So what shall we low-church Twenty-first Century Presbyterian believers do with Lent? Let’s learn the vocabulary, the meaning of the words and the practices they represent. Let’s worship together on Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday – two of the most meaningful services of the year. Let’s make a point of being in worship all the Sundays of Lent (you always say “Sundays of Lent” not “Sundays in Lent,” my high church friends tell me). Let’s commit to using a Lenten Devotional – the one available at the church or some others we will recommend.
We may not need to give up Valentines Day chocolate, Shamrock Shakes, or some friendly participation in the March Madness pool at the office. We will need to give up the distractions and excesses that prevent us from seeing the cross to which we will draw ever closer during these forty days, however. We must give up the cynical despair of an election year that distracts us from the hope that is ours in Christ. We must abstain from surrendering to the deep discouragement of illness or a relationship gone wrong, clinging instead to Christ who promises never to leave us and to make all things new. We must deny the power of the stubborn habit or evil addiction that claims power over us, as we look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who, in our weakness, makes us strong.
Is Lent out of place in our Twenty-first Century world? Yes. Absolutely. And that’s the point.
See you Sunday. And Wednesday