“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.”–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I love Lent and all that it means. It tends to be the centerpiece of my spiritual work for the year and a time for me to renew and reconnect and recommit. I also love the day before Lent begins. It goes by many names: Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carneval. This year, I decided to find a theme to explore during Lent, but I was not sure what it would be.
Traditionally, Fat Tuesday (and all its other names) is a time to celebrate before the sacrifice of Lent. I like the idea of balance and this is a sense of balance in the extremes. Feast, then fast. Savor, then starve (metaphorically). Receive, then refrain.
Generally, Lent is thought to be a Catholic tradition, but many denominations observe it. Lent lasts 40 days (not counting Sundays) and leads up to Easter. The 40 days represent the 40 days that Jesus fasted before his public ministry began.
Fat Tuesday, and all its other names, is celebrated with feasts and parties. Tradition holds that pancakes and other rich foods are eaten before the fasting of Lent begins. This was also a way of using up ingredients from food stores, to prevent waste, before Lent. Making and eating pancakes was a way to use up the last eggs and bits of sugar before the more somber time of Lent.
I thought about making pancakes, but decided to take the lazy way out, so that my evening could be spent on another ritual. On the way home from work, I stopped at one of my favorite restaurants and ordered a stack of pancakes and a side of bacon to go. Once I got home, I kicked off my shoes, put the pancakes and bacon on a plate and sat down to enjoy the feast. I made a cup of dark roast dandelion coffee since pancakes go well with coffee and this brew does not contain any caffeine.
I spent a bit of time in reflection, meditation, and prayer, and then I knew what my theme for Lent would be: forgiveness. Forgiveness of myself, forgiveness of others. Forgiveness, in many ways, is a way to let go: of anger, of regret, of blame. Forgiveness means to let go of the trespass and the trespasser.
There is much to explore in forgiveness and I expect that I will be through learning, praying, meditating, journaling, and participating in the act of forgiving. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. I look to the 40 day journey as a beginning and a way to peace.
This is Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. For those who consider themselves Christian, this is really the pinnacle of the Christian calendar. I do count myself under this umbrella, but perhaps more low-key and uncomfortable and open than some others who also live in this large and diverse tent. I hesitated before writing this post, but I wanted to share one of my favorite stories.
Today is Maundy Thursday, which is considered the night of the last supper shared by Jesus and His Disciples. This is before His Crucifixion on what we now call Good Friday and before Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday. There is obviously more to the story, but I am sharing the general aspects, so that we can think about the particulars on our own.
I tend to think of Linus, from Peanuts, who wisely said, “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” With good friends and certain family members who understand me, though, I love to talk about religion and politics. At the very least, if you think about it, religion and politics provide us with stories. And there is nothing more human than sharing a story, whether it’s your spouse sharing the funny story about the work day, or a long, rambling story about your summer canoe trip, or the long-held traditions of stories we tell our children, or the stories that get passed down in cultures.
My favorite part of all religions, and I love to read and learn more about them, is the stories. Sometimes we can find surprisingly similar stories shared among most of the world’s major religions. How we interpret these stories, and how people argue about whose story is the “most true” is the stuff of wars and violence and major disagreements.
Whether you look to Jesus as the center of your spirituality, or you see Him as a thoughtful storyteller, or you are not sure what you think, or you disagree completely, let us consider the story of Maundy Thursday.
I am not a theologian, nor do I ever think of myself as a religion expert, but this is probably my very favorite story in the Christian canon. Jesus and His Disciples were Jews. They were celebrating the Passover Ceder, or the feast of unleavened bread. Passover is celebrated by Jews, marking their Exodus from enslavement in Egypt. They left quickly, so they didn’t have time for bread to rise, hence the unleavened bread. So, Jesus and His Disciples were to share the Passover Ceder together. But Jesus knew that things were very quickly going to change and He warns His flock of His soon-to-be death. Importantly, He greets His Disciples and begins to wash their feet.
Now, let us think about feet for a moment. Our hands tend to be dirtier in terms of the surfaces they touch and the number of germs they are exposed to, but most of us think of feet as pretty gross and they tend to be stinky and sweaty. In the time of Jesus, sandals were the mainstay of footwear and feet washing was pretty important when travel was almost entirely by foot and on dusty roads. Feet washing was an important step before sharing a meal together. People sat at low tables and their feet were visible and obvious. Foot washing would often have been a servant’s task, or the job of each person to wash their own feet. But Jesus greeted the Disciples and offered to wash their feet.
He was showing humility, and showing the importance of service. I think that Jesus’ main teaching is to love and to serve. The Disciples, in contrast, were arguing about who was the most important and not about who should be in service to each other. At first, the Disciples react in an embarrassed and haughty way to His offer. But Jesus explains and quietly begins the ritual. And then they share their last meal together. This time, as bread is broken, Jesus says, “This is my body.” This time, as the wine is shared, Jesus says, “This is my blood.” And He asks them to, “Do this is in remembrance of me.” This becomes the centerpiece of Christian tradition, theology, and the metaphor for a larger-than-life-event that will occur. This last supper is also when He commands them to love one another.
Think of “The Last Supper” as we often do, with Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting and its myriad of reproductions. The picture, above, is a beautiful depiction of the foot washing and also of the last meal. Today, and tonight, many churches will be celebrating Maundy Thursday with mass, or communion, and some will take part in the ritual of foot washing. We think of it now as spiritually representative of our belief. I have always loved this tradition.
When I was growing up, our little church often had its members line up, and one after the other, feet were washed. When your feet were washed, you performed the ritual for the next person in line. It was an exercise in love and service and humility and familiarity. Easter, depending upon the year, can be celebrated as early as late March and as late as the end of April. Growing up in New Mexico meant that this day could feel as hot and dry as a summer day or as cold and snowy as any winter day. So you might have really hot smelly feet to wash, or really cold stale feet to wash. Today in Colorado, it is snowing after several days in the 70s.
Maundy comes from the Latin word for “command.” On this night, Jesus commands His Disciples to “Love one another as I have loved you.” He does this in service and humility. He is commanding and teaching us to love and to serve. He is embracing humility in the presence of stinky feet.We all have feet and they are all stinky at some point.
If you celebrate Easter, peace be with you. If you don’t celebrate Easter, peace be with you. Let there be love at this time, no matter what.
Let us remember that love and stories bring us all together, no matter what. We all can love and serve and share stories, no matter our beliefs and traditions. We all can love and serve and share stories, stinky feet or not.
The season of Lent is upon us. In the Christian calendar, Lent represents the 40 days before Easter, but actually numbers between 44 and 46 days, depending upon whether or not it ends on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) or Easter Saturday, and somehow the Sundays do not end up in the total. Regardless of the number, this begins the march to Easter. While not mentioned in the bible, the season of Lent represents a time of feeling and fasting, repenting and renewing. It is a ritual to reflect upon the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting, as mentioned in the book of Matthew.
I have long struggled with my faith and spirituality and religion, but finally I realize that struggling with it is my path. I am now comfortable with that endeavor and recognize that I am not alone. I struggle to find a spiritual home, but I am not homeless. I have learned that it is not easy, but maybe it means more to me in the answers I am able to uncover. In spite of the struggle, or because of it, I have always loved the season of Lent. When I was a child and belief seemed simple, I gave up chocolate most years and then gorged myself silly on Easter afternoons. Perhaps the broader messages of reflection and sacrifice did not always penetrate my childhood chocolate haze. As I grew older, I did not always keep up the traditions, but still looked forward to the late-winter season, plodding to spring and renewal, and eventually to the centerpiece of Christian belief: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is a day (or weekend) now associated with thousands of plastic beads thrown in New Orleans, but there is a long tradition of eating rich and fatty foods before the season of Lent gives way to periodic fasting and sacrifice. It is the party before the purge, if you will. It is widely believed that Lent and the traditions of ash crosses smudged onto foreheads is a Catholic tradition, but many Protestant churches continue and celebrate the tradition as well. The cross, made with ash, on the forehead, represents the rebirth and rising. We become the ashes as Genesis 3 says, “we are earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.” The refrain, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) is repeated after one receives the ashes. The ashes represent our physical being, as well as the Israelite tradition of repenting in dust and ashes.
In preparation for Fat Tuesday, also Shrove Tuesday, I made waffles on Sunday. Usually pancakes are served on this special Tuesday before Lent, also known as Pancake Day. Pancakes with eggs and occasionally butter and sugar, are thought to be a decadent and resplendent food. Making them before Lent is also a way to use up the rich ingredients that have collected in the larder, before the season of fasting begins. Since my pancakes tend to be uneven and spottily cooked, I opted for waffles. I figured I would be okay, since the recipes are fairly similar: flour, eggs, baking powder, salt, and a bit of melted butter. After a quick stir, I poured the batter onto the hot waffle iron. A hiss, a click, a few minutes ticked by, the steps repeated, and then glorious waffles. I made a whole batch for Sunday breakfast, leaving a few to eat on Tuesday.
I got up extra early on Tuesday, so I grabbed two waffles and ate them, cold and chewy, on the way to work. I drank coffee from my ceramic mug and enjoyed the quiet drive in the dark, before the sunrise. Tuesday was a whirlwind of teaching and checking in with my dad who endured a short hospital stay the night before. When I got home late that afternoon, I prepared for a quiet evening at home. I called my dad and we chatted for a bit and despite his recent hospitalization, I could tell he was feeling back to normal. I knew because we were able to squeeze politics into our conversation as we wondered about the Texas primaries and the Colorado party caucuses. I hung up the phone, planning to return to my room for some unearthing of objects and sorting of laundry. The phone rang again, this time it was my sister at work. We made plans to celebrate our own version of “Fat Tuesday.”
I picked up Kelly, my fellow partner in crime, and we sped to a pair of our favorite restaurants, right next door to each other. At the little Mexican restaurant, we tucked into a booth for margaritas and chips and salsa. Salt on the rims of the glasses, she ordered hers on the rocks while I requested mine frozen. Purists would laugh at my tequila blasphemy, but I love the slurp and thickness of the icy liquid (at least I know not to order a flavored marg) and the effect I cannot get grinding ice with my home blender. In my greed, I even felt the pangs of frozen-margarita-chest, similar to ice cream headaches from childhood. Fat Tuesday for sure! The chip basket empty, the glasses relieved of their salt, we paid the check and headed next door for dinner. We claimed another booth and pored over the menu, I chose flank steak, mashed potatoes, and kale with mushrooms. My sister opted for a smaller plate with a petit beef filet and steamed vegetables. She got a glass of a local brew and I ordered a glass of red wine. Dinner commenced with giggles and sharing bites of food, maybe only in the language that sisters speak. If you are one of the few who read this blog, you may be wondering at the gluttony of my sister and me with brownies a few days ago and our Oscar night hors d’oeuvres this past Sunday. Let me just say that we are feeling the effects of all the splendor and look forward to returning to a bit of normalcy and restraint.
After the evening’s food and alcohol fest, we gulped water and waited at the restaurant quite a while before driving home. In the late night darkness, sprinkles of snow turned to rain showers and the whole world smelled clean. As soon as I unlocked the door of home, I could feel the gravitational pull of bed and a book. I set my alarm, knowing that the morning ritual of ashes would come early. At five o’clock, a couple of minutes before the much-to-early-shrill, I reset the alarm for 6:15 and questioned my commitment to Ash Wednesday. I rolled over and fell quickly asleep. I woke up at 6:11, pleased I had beaten the alarm, and jumped into a green turtleneck, grey pants, and black boots. I brushed my teeth and headed out the door after a few gulps of water. My fasting day had begun. Last week, I discovered a church that was offering “drive thru ashes.” It was a little far from the office, but not much of a detour on such a special occasion. Despite my extra hour of sleep, I calculated I had time for the extra commute before the day unfolded. I squeaked in to the church parking lot with plenty of time and enjoyed a few minutes of prayer after the smiling minister shared his ashes and a benediction. I could see the smudge in the rear-view mirror and felt the trepidation of wearing the “badge” all day in public and at work, with part of my day in a school. In addition to my struggles in faith, I feel uncomfortable proclaiming my faith out loud and to others. I realized that this was part of my challenge for the day. For me to truly embrace Ash Wednesday, I needed to wear the ashes with honor and quiet dignity. I prayed for strength and courage and commitment.
Throughout the day, walking down the hall in the office, loading or unloading my car with teaching supplies, giving a science presentation to fourth and fifth graders, attending a reception for teachers and principals, and striding through the library to the study carrel to write this, I wore the ashes. Some acknowledged it, “Oh, it’s Ash Wednesday!” A co-worker (a mechanic) thought I had grease on my forehead and I just smiled. I realized it’s not a big deal, but it would have been a big deal if I did not step forward and participate.
I will sleep with this sign on my forehead and tomorrow morning in the shower the faded smudge will wash away down the drain. I, however, have been transformed, if just slightly. It’s the beginning of Lent, a time for reflecting and a time for committing to my faith, struggles and all. For me, rituals are the outside ways to get to the inside. Through the comfort and routine of ritual, we can be challenged to broaden our perspectives and seek something more meaningful.
For the season of Lent, I will be fasting on Wednesdays and Sundays. Some may not see that as pure fasting, as I will eat a small meal at the end of those days, but I will try. This is for religious purposes and spiritual purposes. It is both an action and a prayer. On Wednesdays, it is also for political purposes, in solidarity with the organization Fast for Families, “We are fasting as an act of prayer for the families that are torn apart daily by deportations and our broken immigration system.” On Sundays, it is for me, my own private act and prayer. I will also be taking part in the ritual of giving things up for Lent. The idea is that by giving up things that are pleasurable, one can reflect and remove the distractions and vices in our lives. The ideas and qualities of discipline, moderation, and strength are important to me. I feel I need this for spiritual growth and as a reminder of all that is holy. I am giving up chocolate, meat, and alcohol, which lately have been all-to-easy to rely upon to lift my mood or to treat myself. I am also giving up swearing and abstaining from junk food. In loosening the grip of these vices and bad habits, I hope to regain a balance. In some ways, I hope to go back to an earlier self. I was a strict vegetarian for years and welcome Lent to help return me to that lifestyle permanently.
Through rituals, acts of sacrifice, prayer, and reflection, I welcome Lent. I enjoy the season and community of others doing the same. I reach more deeply, I examine my struggles. I reset and do the uncomfortable work of looking within. I dust off my faith and see it in the clear light of Lent. I seek community. I look for a spiritual home. I breathe. I take a step. I reflect. I cower after making these proclamations. And then I pray.