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.
Most people are probably unaware of the religious symbolism and significance of Shrove Tuesday. It was a day for confession of sins before Lent began. It was a day to use up rich, fatty foods which would not be eaten during Lent. The ingredients were said to symbolize the four pillars of the Christian faith–eggs for creation, flour for sustaining life, salt for wholesomeness and milk for purity. In many Christian parish churches, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, a popular Shrove Tuesday tradition is the ringing of the church bells (on this day, the toll is known as the Shriving Bell) “to call the faithful to confession and for housewives to “begin frying their pancakes.
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 it 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.
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 Dumfries 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” – travelling 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.
Fasting is something that Jesus speaks about in his Sermon on the Mount.
Giving to the Needy
6 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
16 “When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
What strikes you most in this passage?
What is most challenging for you?
What ways can you improve your praying?
How do you feel about fasting?
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.…” (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…” 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 begin 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 Ukraine – for whom your heart, your prayers, your intercession opens through your own discipline of fasting. …” For God so loved 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.
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 neighbours 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.
Fasting in Lent may open some space within you to receive what Jesus called “the food that will last forever”. Amen
Listen to the hymn dear Lord and Father and take in the words
Lent Prayer for a Clean Heart
Create a clean heart in me, O God: a humble heart, a meek heart, a peaceful heart, a benevolent heart, a devout heart which does evil to no one, which does not repay evil for evil, but overcomes evil with good, which loves you above all things, thinks always about you, speaks about you, gives you thanks, delights in hymns and spiritual songs, and has its citizenship in heaven. Amen.