“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”
Pancakes and ashes. What do the two together have to do with the season of Lent? For me the peculiar juxtaposition of the two in the liturgical year relates to the equally peculiar and powerful juxtaposition of feasting and fasting—and then feasting again—in Christian spiritual life.
Shrove Tuesday, also called Fat Tuesday, is the last day of carnival or Mardi Gras, a final day of celebration and feasting each year on the edge of the wilderness journey of fasting. During the Middle Ages, Christians “shrove” or sought absolution before the start of Lent. Shrove Tuesday was the last day of “Shrovetide.” Shrove Tuesday is known in some parts of the world today as Pancake Day. On Pancake Day, we eat our feast-fill because, as the Shrove Tuesday text from Ecclesiastes says—“for tomorrow we die.” Ash Wednesday. A day of “dying.”
Ash Wednesday’s “day of dying” marks the beginning of Lent. The origins of Ash Wednesday are rooted in the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Both Lent and Yom Kippur emphasize fasting and self and communal reflection. Christian worshippers today mark their foreheads with ashes to mark the start of Lent’s 40 days of fasting. Why ashes? In Scripture, ashes symbolize death (Genesis 18:27), judgment (Ezekiel 28:18), lament (Esther 4:3), and repentance (Jonah 3: 6). Ashes are also associated in the bible with fasting (Daniel 9:3 and Isaiah 58:5). Some burial liturgies include the phrase, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” spoken as dirt is sprinkled into the gravesite; both the ashes and the dust symbolize the finality of death. Both also symbolize life and growth. Fasting and feasting merge, it seems, as ashes and soil intermingle.
Feasting to fasting to feasting again is a liturgical arc encompassing the Lent/Easter seasons. In Eastern Christian traditions, Lent is called the Great Fast and Easter’s 50 days the Great Feast. During Lent, some traditions bury the Alleluia—we fast from this word of celebration—to enter into spiritual quiet—to let our spiritual soil rebuild for the springtime to come. But this work is not only symbolic or metaphorical spiritual work; it has to do with concrete realities of living in a world where too many people endure fasts that they did not choose. To choose to fast during Lent is a privilege for many of us.
Consider: this season reminds us that we were made from the soil and that we eventually return to the soil. We are dependent upon the dirt of the earth—the sacrificial gifts of the earth—to eat and live. Christians sometimes think of fasting as a kind of contract with God; I’ll give up “x” in order that “y” might come to pass. But what if fasting has more to do with the rhythms of harvest and the gift-bearing wonders of the dirt from which we come and to which we will return. What if fasting teaches us how to live more redemptively with the earth and calls us to work with greater passion and urgency for Isaiah’s grand feast where there is plenty for all?
Ε. Β. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, writes of his wife Katherine, an avid gardener, who every year in the fall, even in the fall of that year when she knew she likely would not live to see the spring, headed out to the garden to plant bulbs in her garden:
Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katharine would get into a shabby old Brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes, and proceed to the director’s chair, a folding canvas thing…at the edge of the plot. There she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, while Henry produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basketful of old ones, ready for the intricate interment.
As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion. . . her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.*
Historically, Christians fasted each Friday to recall Jesus’ death. Sunday was always considered a feast day, even during Lent. Between Sunday and Friday, eating practices were more “normal.” Perhaps the feasting and fasting themes of Lenten biblical texts can help us to embrace this historic sacred rhythm in our daily lives. Or we can consider again that the central meal of Christian worship consists of simple basics, bread and wine, that shared in community become a nourishing feast of radical welcome and promise of food for all. The possibility of such a Lenten consideration is a restored relationship to food—to earth’s good dirt—to each other in a world where too many are hungry.
So Lent begins. And despite all that is wrong in the world and our uncertainties about what the future holds, we yet again take up the radical Gospel work of plotting the resurrection.
*from E. B. White, “Introduction” in K. S. White, Onward and Upward in the Garden.