I have always had a real interest, a fascination you might say, with words, their meanings and derivations. And this has been the case for the period immediately preceding Ash Wednesday and particularly all that is associated with Shrove Tuesday. Shriving itself is an old English word meaning to make confession, be assigned some penance and hear the words of absolution declared by a priest. However contemporary observance of the day, in many parts of the world, is more characterized by partying than by acknowledgement of sinfulness. For instance the well-known term ‘Mardi Gras’ literally means ‘Fat Tuesday’ and refers to the excessive eating and drinking that might be indulged in immediately before the Lenten fast. Similarly the word ‘carnival’ translates ‘taking away the meat’ and signifies that, for some, the following forty days would mean observing a vegetarian regime.
I daresay most of us will have seen footage of the celebrations and street parades common in certain countries, thronged as they are with brightly costumed revelers. Very often of course the flamboyant attire will also include colourful masks as the participants assume different characters. But that was yester-day, and today, Ash Wednesday we remove the masks, we slip out of our make-believe personalities, and we become who we really and essentially are. No pretence, no deception, no affectation, we lay ourselves open and bare before our God. A rather tragic illustration of this has occurred around us just of late of course as the true structural integrity of many buildings in our city has been exposed. What may have appeared solid and durable has not stood up to the test. Attractive facades have crumbled as the earth has moved.
Appearances can be deceiving , we know that, but they cannot mislead God. A popular saying is that you can fool some of the people all of the time, but the associated reality is that you cannot fool God at any time. As the Psalmist declared “He knows the secrets of the heart”.
Jesus, of course, warned his hearers not to put too much store on the exterior as he took aim at some of the Pharisees who appeared most pious but whose real character was self-serving and lacking in compassion. So this period of Lent becomes, amongst other things, a time for some deep and honest self-appraisal, acknowledging that even if we can fake it with others, even if we can delude ourselves in certain respects – and strangely enough we can – as the Epistle to the Hebrews reveals “we are laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account”. The consequence of this awareness may then lead to a greater honesty with ourselves and subsequently more sincerity and openness with others.
As we know Lent has traditionally been used as a time for spiritual disciplines, practices often associated with denying oneself in some way. Fasting can be beneficial in various ways. But it’s really only half effective if it stops at the point of giving up. The real benefit comes when we renounce certain practices in order to assume others, when we fast in order to feast. And if that sounds paradoxical perhaps I can make clear my meaning with these practical suggestions that I came upon recently.
This Lent I shall Fast from judgment and feast on compassion
Fast from greed and feast on sharing
Fast from scarcity and feast on abundance
Fast from fear and feast on trust
Fast from lies and feast on truth
Fast from gossip and feast on praise
Fast from anxiety and feast on patience
Fast from evil and feast on kindness
Fast from apathy and feast on engagement
Fast from discontent and feast on gratitude
Fast from noise and feast on silence
Fast from discouragement and feast on hope
Fast from hatred and feast on love.