When I was a kid growing up in Britain, I honestly believed we were only allowed to eat pancakes on a very special holiday called Pancake Tuesday. We had ours with lemon juice and sugar because London isn’t known for its glittering maple forests, and pancakes are bloody good with lemon juice and sugar.
I believed that Pancake Tuesday was a very special holiday for (I am embarrassed to say) decades. Even after moving to the States and finding pancakes literally everywhere, they seemed relegated in my mind to one day in the spring.
And the worst part is, I couldn’t tell you why Pancake Tuesday existed. It was just a food thing, like how Americans got to have turkey on Thanksgiving. I got to have pancakes on Pancake Tuesday.
Cradle Catholics and many Protestants are, right now, slapping their foreheads and clutching their tastefully strung pearls. But I am writing this because Child/Teenaged Me was not an anomaly. A lot of people have no idea why we have pancakes or wear ashes or “give up chocolate” right before Easter. I am writing this for all the people who still think Pancake Tuesday is, like David Pumpkins, it’s own thing.
Let’s start by affirming that pancakes have nothing to do with Jesus whatsoever. The tradition of eating pancakes on Fat Tuesday, aka Mardi Gras, aka Shrove Tuesday, aka the night before Lent starts — comes of having to use up whatever luxury items one had in the house before the forty or so days of Lenten fasting began. This was back in the days when your butter and eggs couldn’t be refrigerated to be used on the next feast day.
Yeah, that’s another thing people don’t realize about Lent. You do actually get to enjoy the things you’ve given up on solemnities and Sundays. So go ahead and buy the chocolate, log on to Facebook, or order the pancakes (with due reverence and gratitude).
Pancakes are not some blessed sacrament. I didn’t even get to have pancakes this Mardi Gras. I instead had phenomenal carnitas tacos and more chocolate than God intended any human to consume. This has the added benefit of making it easier to fast on Ash Wednesday, because you’ve eaten yourself as miserable as any other first world problem.
Ash Wednesday is when we are reminded of our mortality, for the wages of sin are death. Father marks your forehead with the sign of the cross during a solemn mass and tells you that you came from dust and will return to dust. He may also tell you to repent and follow the Gospel. Depending on your medical needs, you are encouraged to eat no more than a regular meal and two smaller meals (which, let’s be frank, is actually sensible advice most days, even outside of a penitential season).
Lots of people then go about their day with the ashes still on their forehead; some wipe them off. I find that people expect me to be incredibly helpful when I have ashes, and yesterday I was asked for directions several times more than usual. It’s heartening to think that people associate Christians with trustworthy helpfulness.
The rest of Lent is not about how much weight you can lose or how many dimes you put in the swear jar, though those results don’t hurt. You’re giving something up to make more room for Christ, who gave his life that you might live forever. The thing you’re giving up was consuming time that could be spent in prayer or at an additional mass or volunteering.
If you find you are now spending more time measuring food or grinding flax seed or whatever you need for your Lenten “diet”, but not participating in more Christlike activities, it’s okay to reroute. Sometimes it helps to talk to your priest or pastor about that. They might encourage you to give up something much more difficult than food, like TV or online poker or Candy Crush — whatever consumes time better spent on Jesus.
The food thing is more about awareness, anyhow. Fish on Fridays (or bean burritos if you live anywhere near decent Mexican cuisine) is not about weight loss or deprivation so much as observing the day Christ died by exhibiting even the slightest change in routine. At this point, most of us hear “Just Got Paid” in our heads the second we clock out Friday night, but it wouldn’t kill us to then order the shrimp fried rice.
Today’s Gospel from the lectionary is Luke 9:22-25. I can think of no better explanation for why we “do Lent”, so here it is:
“Jesus said to his disciples:
‘The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected
by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.’
Then he said to all,
‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
yet lose or forfeit himself?’”
In that context, our very small Lenten sacrifices seem childish, like my perception of Pancake Tuesday when I was little. But Jesus sees us all as children, so our little efforts, like burnt toast and another tie on Father’s Day, mean the world to him.