Now that I work in the chapel here at the convent I feel that I have a front row seat to the changing liturgical seasons. Early in January I realized that February would bring Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. I thought ‘how will we be able to tell the difference between Ordinary Time and Lent?’ The past 12 months have felt like a permanent Lent, a time of deprivation and restriction and, a clipping of wings, a thwarting of plans, a collection of large and small losses.
However, seeing Lent this way does argue a specific point of view of Lent. So, if I keep viewing Lent as a time of deprivation and loss, a time of misery then yes, it is all Lent, all the time. I realized I needed to change my focus.
I went to a public high school but nonetheless the cafeteria served fish on Fridays and pancakes were available on Pancake Tuesday. My classmates talked about what they were giving up for Lent (chocolate and French fries figured heavily – these were teenagers after all) and there were hopes for making their confession to one priest (the one who was lenient) instead of the other (whose reputation was entirely otherwise). It was a glimpse into another world, a world which I couldn’t comprehend.
My mother, who had been raised an Anglican, did her best to explain it all to me but it was confusing and also, I just couldn’t see the point. And where did the pancakes come into it? As a family we attended a non-liturgical church and I knew there wouldn’t be any talk about Lent or Ash Wednesday or going to confession so I just let it all pass me by.
Later when I started to attend an Anglican Church myself I heard a different perspective on Lent. At this parish we were encouraged to take on something for Lent instead of focusing on giving up something, although we were exhorted not to make it a self-improvement project. This perspective felt more life giving and possible but I have to admit that by the time I got to Holy Week I was a bit hazy about what I had taken on.
As I have so many times in my life I turned to a book for guidance. According to the BAS Lent is a time to prepare for the celebration of our redemption and to renew our life in the paschal mystery. Easter is so important that we need significant time to prepare for it. The beginning of Lent – Ash Wednesday – is an invitation to go on a journey. The journey begins with ashes, ‘an ancient sign, speaking of the frailty and uncertainty of human life, and marking the penitence of the community as a whole.’
The readings for Ash Wednesday include pleas to turn to God but not in a way that suggests we are just going through the motions or performing for others. In Joel chapter 2:12 we read “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.
In Matthew chapter 6 we are warned that if our piety is only external behaviour to gain positive attention from others then we have already received our reward. Later in the same chapter we are encouraged to store up treasures in heaven not on earth. Treasure on earth will not last but treasure in heaven will. The kind of penitence which is asked of us is more than superficial, it involves rending our hearts, truly grieving the harm we have caused to both God and our neighbour and, dare I say, even ourselves?
Easter is the end of our journey and the season of Lent functions as a map with instructions to help us reach our journey’s end; through self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God. How wonderful is that? We are invited on a journey, we know when it begins and when it ends. Not only that but we are given a guidebook for the journey.
And the pancakes? The day before Ash Wednesday is known variously as Pancake Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. The pancakes are all about symbolically preparing for the journey ahead by consuming all the rich foods in the pantry before the fasting of Lent. It is a way of preparing ourselves, body, mind and heart for our Lenten journeys.