Today has traditionally been called “Shrove Tuesday.” The word “shrove” is derived from an Old English verb “to shrive,” which means “to hear confession,” or “to grant absolution.” To shrive is about cleaning out the cobwebs in the closets of your soul – things done and left undone, things said and left unsaid – which may clutter or weigh heavily on your conscience. And so this word “shrive,” from which we get the traditional name for today, Shrove Tuesday, is buttressed right next to Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of season of Lent, a season of penitence and abstinence.
Some of you may have grown up with the custom of a pancake supper on Shrove Tuesday, which is no accident. Going back to the Middle Ages, the custom of eating pancakes and sausages had a practical purpose, since eggs and fat were used, and eggs and fat were forbidden during the fasting of Lent. In one fell swoop, the larder is cleared out and you have one last blowout meal before you face (tomorrow) Ash Wednesday. In Germany, today is traditionally called Fetter Dienstag (fat Tuesday). Likewise in France and here in the States in New Orleans, this is traditionally called Mardi gras (fat Tuesday), which is a day of feasting and merrymaking marking the climax of the carnival season. Play hard today because tomorrow’s down to serious business: Lent.
The season of Lent continues until Easter Sunday on April 4th. The etymological root for the word Lent means “long days.” The name Lent comes from a Germanic root signifying spring, an allusion to the lengthening of days at this time of year: Lent/lengthening. (In the western hemisphere, the days actually are lengthening: lighter earlier in the morning and longer into the afternoon.) The “church color” often gives you a clue about the significance of a given day or season in the church calendar. Today marks the end of the Epiphany season, Epiphany from a Greek word epiphaneia, which means manifestation. The Christ child, Jesus, manifested the presence and glory of God not just to fellow Jews but to the wisemen from the east and everyone else who followed… including probably most of us Gentiles who are not of Jewish ancestry. Epiphany marks the season when the church began growing far and wide and deep, and so the color for the Epiphany season has traditionally been green. Green for growth. Now tomorrow begins this new season in the calendar of the church, Lent, and the “church color” has traditionally been purple or an earth tone (such as we use here at the Monastery), signifying a time of solemn preparation and humility in anticipation of Easter.[i] We know that the church has been observing this solemn lenten season of preparation since at least 325 c.e.
It is not insignificant that the season of Lent lasts for forty days. The number forty comes from the forty days’ fasts recorded in the scriptures: Moses, Elijah and Jesus (following his baptism) all fasted for forty days. Now here’s an aside. If you look at the calendar and do the math, you will note that there are more than forty days between tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. That’s because Lent does not include the Sundays in Lent. Sundays are “feast days,” Sundays always being “little Easters,” days that we remember Christ’s resurrection, which are festal days. And so we talk about Sundays being in Lent but not of Lent. (So you might be saying to yourself right now, ”Do you mean that I can eat dessert on Sundays in Lent and still keep my lenten resolution about fasting from sweets?” Well, sure you could….)
Now about this practice of fasting. If I were to stand on a street corner here in Harvard Square and take a random survey: “What comes to mind when you hear the word fast?” Most people would say something about the pace of life these days – it is fast, probably too fast. They would talk about the word “fast” as an adverb of speed and not a verb of abstinence. Curiously, there is a common etymology for both connotations of the word. “Going fast” – traveling or working fast, or having a fast connection to the internet – that kind of fast comes from the same etymological root as “fasting,” in the sense of abstaining from food, such as the spiritual practice of some people on Ash Wednesday or other days. Our English word “fast” comes from the Old English fæsten, which denoted “firm,” such as “to hold fast” to some decision or principle. “Hold fast.” We also may talk about a “a long, fast friend,” meaning someone who has been a secure friend, someone who has been tight with you – a steadfast friend. This word “fast” came to be a verb, applied to the abstinence of food, because of one’s “holding fast to a particular observance,” which was a firm resolve. That’s how the scriptures speak of fasting: less about fasting in the sense of eliminating something or denying yourself of some food, but fasting more in the sense of holding firm, of fastening our resolve to a discipline or practice. Fasting: more an affirmation of some principle rather than a renunciation of some desire.
Jesus talks about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount when he teaches about giving and praying. Jesus presumes we do all three: pray, give, fast. In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ saying, “When you fast.…”[ii] (Not “if,” but “when you fast….”) He makes the assumption that people would hold to the practice of fasting; they simply needed instruction on how to do it properly since fasting was a common practice in his day. For example the gospels recall an encounter that Jesus has with a Pharisee who boasts, “I fast twice a week…”[iii] Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays because those were the market days, so there would be bigger audiences to see and admire their very austere piety. Jesus nowhere in the gospels commands us to fast, but he does assume the custom of fasting would go on, but with new meaning.
What might you do beginning tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, as we begin this solemn season of preparation for Easter? You may find it a helpful discipline during Lent to fast in the sense of eliminating some food or preoccupation or distraction or habit so as to make space for some greater good, such as awareness of God’s presence, or for empathy or solidarity with God’s people, God’s causes in the troubled world that surrounds us.
- For some of us, fasting from food may be a grace of identification with so many in this world who do not choose to deny themselves food. There may be some particular people whom God brings to your attention – those in our own culture, in Haiti, or beyond – for whom your heart, your prayers, your intercession opens through your own discipline of fasting. …”For God so loves the world,” so much of which hungers for food, and also hungers for justice and peace.
- For some of us, fasting may symbolically and physiologically get us in touch with “hungering” and “longing” and “thirsting” and “desiring” (to use language from the Psalms). What do you crave? And why? Fasting may clarify and bring order to these hungers as you pray and practice your life.
- For some of us, fasting Lent is a way to abstain from what is new, rather to live and pray with what is now, already. Be content, be satisfied, be sated with what is already present, with the now. Lent could be for you a forty-day detachment from the consumer culture that surrounds us. Come Easter, you would have a sense freedom or focus or perspective to re-engage our culture in a newly proportioned way.
- For some of us, fasting from food is not the focus. You may not be able to fast from food for health reasons. Or fasting from food may not be most important thing. I said earlier that the verb “to fast” comes from the sense of a steadfast resolve. It might be meaningful for you to fast from worry, or from regret, or from revenge, or from jealousy. If you’re prone to gorge on some emotion, fast from that. You might find it a meaningful discipline in Lent to affirm a practice of not multi-tasking or over-committing, as you’re prone to do, a discipline of “holding fast” to a slower pace. The season of Lent is a contained period of time to give up something that bloats your soul and consumes your attention. Fasting can help create some space and give you some inner freedom. Try it!.
- You may find in Lent the invitation not only to do something less, but also to do something more, with your time or attention or money. You might hold fast to a daily resolve to practice some act of kindness or generosity with your spouse or partner, with one or more of your colleagues or neighbors or family members or even strangers. What if you wrote a “love letter” every day in Lent – not a business letter, not a letter of duty, but a love letter to a different person every day in Lent? Simply tell them they are remembered, that they matter, that you care for them and pray for them. Hold fast to some meaningful lenten discipline.
In the early days of Christian monasticism, John Cassian, a monk of the fifth century, wrote how under the Old Law, the observance of a fast was obligatory.[iv] Now, he writes, fasting is a voluntary devotion, what he calls an “efficacious sign of detachment” from the world and an “attachment to God alone.”[v] Fasting is a way of fastening on to what is most important, that first love, that ultimate desire, our beginning and our end: to know God and love God and serve God. Fasting in Lent may open some space within you to receive what Jesus called “the food that will last forever” and to give you both the freedom and the focus share that food – literally and symbolically – with a world that is starving for what Jesus promised.[vi]
[i] The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis “lowly, humble,” lit. “on the ground,” from humus “earth.”
[ii] Matthew 6:16-25f.
[iii] Luke 18:11-12.
[iv]John Cassian (ca. 360 – 435) born in the region of Scythia Minor (modern-day Romania), was a revered monk and Christian theologian.
[v] Ibid, pp. 64-65.
[vi] John 6:27, 35, 47-51 – Jesus said, ‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. …For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. …Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
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