Man, yesterday was great. I went out early to that supermarket that bakes fresh 7 days-a-week and picked up Pączki for the family for breakfast. Friends introduced us to this Polish Tuesday-before-Ash Wednesday tradition and we have enjoyed Pączki Day for over 30 years. In a similar vein German Americans have traditionally celebrated with a traditional doughnut called Faschnacht. If you background leans a little more to being English, yesterday would have been Pancake Day.
Whatever the cultural variation, the day had a purpose, eating rich foods on the Tuesday-before-Ash Wednesday was a way to empty the pantry of lard, sugar, fat, and butter, which were traditionally fasted from during Lent.
And then let’s not forget those who celebrate Fat Tuesday with a party or carnival—for two weeks St. Louis French quarter, Soulard, has been host to the second largest Mardi Gras in the country—and Mardi Gras is simply French for ‘Fat Tuesday.’ Just about wherever Lent is celebrated, Fat Tuesday traditions have grown up.
Like many traditions, while the ‘fun’ and ‘traditional’ aspects endure and are celebrated far and wide, the reason for the tradition is largely forgotten or set aside as no longer relevant. Why would Christian households commit the day before Ash Wednesday to emptying the pantry of butter, fat, and sugar? The answer is not in the donuts or the pancakes, or the rich Mardi Gras foods—as much as we like them. With the pantry cleaned out, the Christian family is prepared for the traditional fasting that is associated with Lent.
A few of the liturgical traditions still remember or use the old term Shrove Tuesday. ‘Shrove’ means to have been shriven before Lent, an old English way of saying to [be prepared] to obtain absolution for one’s sins by way of Confession. Here then is the other traditional aspect of Lent: that is confession so that one may obtain absolution for sin. Lent prepares us to approach the Cross on Good Friday, approach shriven, approach having contemplated our sins, not just to have made a list of them, but to have pondered anew the great need we have for a Savior from our sin; to contemplate the gravity of our sin—sin so deep, so dark, that it required nothing less than that the Son of God would die that we could be reconciled to God.
Ash Wednesday is set aside yearly as a day of repentance, a day to contemplate your sins and to be sorry for your sins. Not matter your Christian tradition, it is not too late to be shriven—and it doesn’t require you to go to IHOP or Drive-In Donuts. Repent! Hold up your life, your thoughts, your pet sins before the mirror of God’s Ten Commandments and see how far we are from His holy will.
But to recognize sin is not enough, to make a list of all our sins, even if we could, is not enough. Repentance, true repentance, requires that you turn away from your sin. To turn away from excess during Lent just to pick it up again in spades after Easter is no true Lenten discipline. In the same way, to confess your sin, but not turn aside from it, to not change your life, your actions, your sinful behavior, but to return to them—that is not true repentance. Empty ‘sorrys’ come so easily off our lips. Like many who celebrate Fat Tuesday with no intention of being shriven, we throw ‘sorrys’ around with no understanding or intention to do anything really different. Your “I’m sorry,” no matter how heartfelt, is insufficient if it is not joined with the change needed to not commit that sin again.
God despaired of our sin. Yet, instead of acting in righteous judgment against us, He sent His Son to die for our sin, so that we might live with Him forever. The weight of your sin–my sin, the heavy yoke of it, crushed the Lord on the cross, so that we would not have to be crushed into the grave forever. He drank to the dregs the bitter cup of God’s wrath against our sin, so that in true faith we receive the sweet cup of blessing in Christ.
While we turn our attention to confessing our sin on this Ash Wednesday, all the more let us turn our lives to lives of repentance-lives where we continually hold ourselves accountable to God and to each other, lives where we sorrow over sin AND seek the God-given strength to turn from our sins. This is the work the Holy Spirit does in us, the daily drowning of the old sinful man and the bringing forth of the New Man—this is the daily remembrance of our Baptism that strengthens us.
Confession has two parts, first, to confess our sins, and second to receive absolution. Absolution, the sweet word of God that announces that your sins are forgiven. Absolution, the sweet Gospel that on account of Christ, God sets aside the punishment of your sin.
It’s Ash Wednesday. Repent! Then hear the Word of forgiveness with the assurance that your sins are truly forgiven by God in heaven.
Almighty and everlasting God, You despise nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and contrite hearts that lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness we may receive from You full pardon and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. (L22)
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