Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mardi Gras/ Ash Wednesday

This week marks an important transition in the Christian calendar: from the excitement and awe of Transfiguration Sunday to the somber tone of Ash Wednesday. Today, Mardi Gras (aka Shrove Tuesday) and tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, mark our passage from the season of Common Time to the season of Lent. During Lent, United Methodists and other Christians take time to observe 40 days of introspection, penitence (confession), and sometimes fasting.

Last week at work, two of my coworkers decided to celebrate the Mardi Gras season by decorating a King Cake. The King Cake is usually eaten around Christmas outside of the US, but is associated with Mardi Gras in the US. Inside, a small prize is hidden, and whoever gets the prize has to buy next year's King Cake.

Joey got the prize this time. It was a tiny plastic model of the baby Jesus. Not gonna lie, it was kind of creepy... they had ordered triple berry filling, so it looked like an albino fetus covered in red goo. Oh well, it tasted good, so we will probably order another cake from "the Best Little Bakery in Southern Mississippi" next year. Today, many churches in my area are having pancake suppers to celebrate Shrove Tuesday.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, so our church is having a 6:00 service for which I will sing, then is kicking off the traditional Lenten Bible study. On Sunday, my friends, Doug, Lane, Jaime, and I had the usual pre-Lent "so what are you giving up this year?" conversation. Lane said he might give up Dunkin' Donuts, which is located just outside his office building. Jamie said he had totally forgotten about Lent until that moment.

 Rev. Ann S. Howard cautions that Lent is not for our own self-improvement efforts, but is a time to live into our humanity. Her post over at The Beatitudes Society blog muses:

Maybe this Lent I'll shape up. I'll give up that nasty habit, I'll be nicer to my nosy neighbor, I'll spend more time doing good deeds, I'll waste less time. I'll really make an effort this year. And then, maybe I'll be back in the game, just like that baseball player. By Easter I will be an exemplary Christian, batting 1000. I don't think so. Lent is not 40 days and 40 ways to self-improvement. Lent is the invitation to settle deeply into our humanity, bruised knees, bruised egos and all. This kind of settling in is different from coming up with disciplines that might make us better.
Settling into our humanity like this means we can give up the illusion that we get somehow better by muscling our way into spiritual disciplines...[it] means that we can give up the heavy lifting, spirituallly-speaking, and simply receive the gift of Lent. To "remember that we are but dust" is the reminder that we live by grace. We live by God's extravagant love and radical forgiveness. Lent gives us time to discover these gifts, and live as if we accept them.

We need to examine our motives for what we choose as our spiritual practice for Lent. Expecting too can lead to giving up our practices by day 5 or 6. Conversely, we might not expect enough. For instance, if we decide to give up something that isn't all that important to us, that's not really fasting. The practice of fasting for Lent can take many forms, as long as it calls attention to our need for self-examination and repentance.

Lent is about considering how we live daily, and whether our habits and attitudes are in line with the Gospel. For the ways that are not, we repent. Repentance means that we allow ourselves to feel regret and sorrow over what we have done wrong, and think or pray about how we can do better in the future. Repenting requires us to commit to doing the right thing next time. It can be a painful process to admit we have done wrong, but repentance is the first step to healing. This first step is realizing how much God loves and values us, even while realizing that we have done wrong. It might feel crummy, but an awareness of our need for grace and God's generous gift is necessary in order to be changed into disciples of Jesus Christ.

Becoming a disciple is an ongoing process. It's not as if we're "saved" once and then don't have to do anything else. Being a Christian means that we allow the Holy Spirit to shape us into the likeness of Christ. Taking time out for reflection and repentance is a very important part of that process of transformation. Our continuing conversion depends on deepening awareness of God's generous love for us, and striving for holiness in our everyday actions is our response to that love.

How have you practiced repentance? Has it been challenging for you? What is your Lenten practice this year, and how will it help you to be self-reflective and repentant?

As for me, I am just trying to continue my daily devotional practice. My devotions call me to repentance and holiness every day, so if I can get through Lent without slacking off (Saturdays included!) I'll be doing necessary reflection.


  1. Great post, Carolyn. This year I'm eating a vegan diet Monday through Friday; Saturdays, too, if I can. Over the past few months I've been thinking a lot about the ways my actions (or inaction) have caused God's creation to suffer. Lent is a perfect time to make lifestyle changes because it gives us a time to really meditate on practices and purposes that will bring us into closer relationship with God.

    I admire your discipline in keeping up with your devotions, and I consider reading your blog to be part of the devotion dimension to my "fasting."

  2. Thanks for sharing! Its always important to ground ourselves in spiritual practices. I am really beginning to find my rhythm of post- Boston spiritual practices - and its sounds like you are too. I appreciate hearing about your journey. Love, Joy