2 Peter 3:18
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. Shrove Tuesday is buttressed right next to Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of season of Lent, a season of penitence and abstinence. Tomorrow, at the Ash Wednesday liturgies, we will begin with a Litany of Penitence.
In the meantime, we’re serving you a pancake supper this evening after the liturgy… as if you don’t already know it. (The frankincense we’re using this evening has just a touch of sausage aroma!) Going back to the Middle Ages, the custom of eating pancakes and sausages has had a practical purpose. In one last binge before Ash Wednesday, the larder is emptied of eggs and fat and butter and sugar before the traditional fasting of Lent. In Spanish-speaking countries today is Martes de Grasa (Fat Tuesday); similarly in France and Haiti and in New Orleans, today is Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), a day of feasting and merrymaking marking the climax of the carnival season. Our word “carnival” comes from the Latin caro “meat” + levare “remove.” Remove the meat, literally, or occasionally, or symbolically as of tonight, because tomorrow begins the fasting season of Lent.
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. Tomorrow, with the beginning of Lent, the “church color” is traditionally 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, which, this year, is April 20th. (1) We know that the church has been observing this preparatory season of Lent 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-day 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 discover 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 always “feast days.” Every Sunday is a “little Easter,” a day we remember Christ’s resurrection. 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 could 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 in Harvard Square and ask passersby in 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 rather than a verb of abstinence. But it’s all related. “Going fast” – traveling or working fast or having a fast connection to the internet, and fasting, in the form of abstinence – come from the same etymological root. Our English word “fast” comes from the Old English fæsten, which means “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 as one of three essential practices: praying, giving, and fasting. In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ saying, “When you fast.…” (2) (Not “if,” but “when you fast….”) Jesus makes the assumption that people would hold fast to the practice of fasting; they simply needed instruction on how to do it properly since fasting was a common practice in his day.
If you were to fast, what kind of fasting might you practice as of tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, as we begin this solemn lenten 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 the poor and suffering in the troubled world that surrounds us.
- For some of us, fasting from food may awaken an identification with so many in this world who do not choose to deny themselves food. There may be some people living in poverty whom God brings to your attention – the elderly, the orphaned, the imprisoned, the destitute, the homeless in our own country. Or you may be drawn to some place of distress in our world – the people of Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, Zimbabwe, or South Sudan, or elsewhere – 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 our deep cravings. The Psalms use the language of “hungering” and “longing” and “thirsting” and “desiring.” What do you crave most deeply? And why? Fasting may clarify and bring order to these hungers in your soul as you pray and practice your life.
- For some of us, fasting in Lent is a way to abstain from always being lured by 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 alluring consumer culture that surrounds us. If so, come Easter, you would have a greater 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, per se, 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 to fast from regret, or to fast from revenge, or to fast from jealousy or envy. If you’re prone to gorge on some emotion, fast from that. You might find it a meaningful discipline in Lent to fast from 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. Why not 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. (3) 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.” (4) 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 some form during 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 to share that food – literally and symbolically – with a world that is starving for what Jesus promised. (5)
1. The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis “lowly, humble,” lit. “on the ground,” from humus “earth.”
2. Matthew 6:16-25f.
3. John Cassian (ca. 360 – 435) born in the region of Scythia Minor (modern-day Romania), was a revered monk, Christian theologian, and writer. He draws on the early monastic tradition of Egypt in his Institutions, dealing with the organization of monastic life. His Conferences focus on inner disciplines and the “perfection of the heart.”
4. Ibid, pp. 64-65.
5. 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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