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It’s an odd day. Today, that is. Depending on to whom you talk, today is “Mardi Gras” or “Fat Tuesday.” But you might also hear this is “Shrove Tuesday.” And apparently in some British (and perhaps other) circles it is known as “Pancake Tuesday.” Across those various names for this day are also a bevy of diverse practices.
On the Shrove side of things is the idea to be highly penitent over our sins as a preparation for Ash Wednesday tomorrow and the start of the Lenten Season. On the Mardi/Fat side of things seems to be an idea that—before we get serious about following Jesus to the cross in an austere season in which we may be asked to give something up for Lent—we need to kick up our heels and live it up. Perhaps even riotously so. Perhaps even rather immorally. Perhaps in ways that will pile up even more sins to confess once we get to Lent. (If you want to get the idea on this side of the ledger, just go to New Orleans on Mardi Gras and start throwing plastic beads at various women. The result—so I am told—may be, shall we say, rather revealing.) Or perhaps “living it up” before Lenten austerity involves no more than enjoying a goodly stack of pancakes!
Pancakes notwithstanding, it is fairly clear that the excesses of immorality associated with today have nothing to do with any true preparation for Lent. Historically—or so I read—some things now associated with Mardi Gras got imported from pagan fertility rites as the church tried to steer such things in a better spiritual direction. If that is even partly correct, it looks like the pagan parts have edged out the spiritual ones, which is perhaps why a lot of people who this day will be whooping it up in various Mardi Gras parades and processionals may have no awareness that tomorrow is this thing called Ash Wednesday.
Of course, the church at some past point also adapted the Roman winter solstice / Saturnalia and turned it into a celebration of Christ’s birth. December 25, in fact, was known in Roman times as dies natalis solis invicti or “the day of birth of the unconquered sun.” Instead of celebrating the birth of the sun, the church turned December 25 into a day to celebrate the birth of the Son. All in all and despite the Hallmarkitization of the Christmas Season in more recent times, things for the church in turning Saturnalia into Christmas went much better than turning pagan fertility rites into Shrove Tuesday.
But I digress. Then again, why am I writing all this? Well, mainly because I was casting about for an idea for today’s blog and noting what this particular Tuesday is seemed like low-hanging fruit. Yet there is something about today’s odd admixture of excess and penitence that may strike a chord with deeper issues. Yes, some today will willfully commit sins and in so doing they may or may not be relying on the Shrove part of the day to get those sins forgiven. If so, it smacks of the old line (attributed by some to Heinrich Heine) “God likes to forgive. I like to sin. Really, the world is admirably arranged.”
Of course to that way of thinking—and Paul encountered this in among other places in Romans 6—we would have to speak a Pauline optative line in Greek, me genoito! By no means! The idea behind “Let us eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we will be forgiven” displays a wanton disregard for the true meaning of grace and of our having union with Christ.
Still, whether in getting ready for Lent, during Lent, or at any other time we all sadly recognize our brokenness. Until Christ comes again and fully sanctifies all of us, we remain complicated moral beings. As Neal Plantinga said, we are all of us a mixture of light and shadow. And inside each of our hearts are places where we cannot always know for certain where the light leaves off and a shadow begins. Virtue and vice mingle in each of us and if Scripture makes one thing clear, it is that this struggle between the old self and the new self is incessant. Lent and the Christian life generally calls us to a daily rhythm of dying and rising with Christ. Dying and then also rising. Dying again in repentance and rising again in renewal.
We don’t have to engage in Mardi Gras-esque moral excesses to know that our penitence is typically tinged with our penchant to keep racking up more sins for which to repent. We should not like that fact about ourselves and we surely must not shrug it off because, after all, grace abounds when also our sins abound so why worry? But when we are able honestly to look in the mirror and know these truths about ourselves, it ought to become a compassion and empathy generator inside of us.
No, recognizing our own patterns of living and our need perpetually not only to rise with Christ but also again and again to die with Christ cannot become a reason to excuse anything and everything. We don’t need to give Vladimir Putin a pass since, shucks, we’re all struggling, aren’t we?
But in less extreme and more typical situations in everyday life in the church and in our families, compassion and understanding and empathy should be our starting point in how we think about, talk to, or otherwise deal with people who struggle no less than each of us.
As we prepare to enter Lent tomorrow, this seems to be a biblical and Gospel-infused thought to bear in mind.
Meanwhile, feel free to indulge in a couple pancakes or so.