Pancake Day, Lent and Fasting

As far as I am concerned, today is “Pancake Day.” No more “Mardi Gras” or “Carnival” for me. These celebrations have largely become excuses for drunkenness, irreverence, sexual irresponsibility and general misbehavior throughout the world. From Europe to New Orleans to Rio de Janeiro, the story of debauchery is the same.

Certainly, some people just like parades, costumes and a little fun. There’s no harm in that. The excesses of Mardi Gras and Carnival, however, are so extreme that they are impossible to ignore. It’s not that this is a new phenomenon, and it’s not that the world needs an excuse for such behavior. It is ever more troubling to me, however, that such behavior is associated with the Christian observance of Lent. I work with a large number of non-liturgical Christians who have no positive experience of the Lenten season. All they know of Lent is that it begins when the orgy is over. So Mardi Gras be damned. From now on, the day before Ash Wednesday is Pancake Day.

So let’s talk about Pancake Day and Lent, and let’s begin with what Lent is not. Lent is not about taking a temporary break from things we ought not be doing anyway so that we can accumulate some bonus points with God.

Lent began as a period of baptismal preparation for those who had been pagan idolaters. In part, Lent consisted of a concentrated period of instruction in the Christian faith. Early Christians also believed that while idols may not genuinely exist, demonic powers were present in the practice of idolatry. During Lent, candidates for baptism also renounced Satan, fasted and prayed. Oskar Skarsaune writes that this Christian practice paralleled that for pagan converts to Judaism:

Due to contact with idols, the convert from paganism was unclean as well as suspect of being possessed by an unclean spirit. The fasting and prayers were there mainly understood as ‘spiritual cleansing’ (for the exorcistic effect of fasting and prayer, cf. Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29) and as expressions of repentance ….. The exorcisms were a kind of negative preparation for receiving the Holy Spirit in baptism.” (In the Shadow of the Temple, page 363).

This idea of exorcism may seem foreign to modern sensibilities, but we do understand how difficult it is to change one’s world view, one’s behavior and one’s allegiances. The world is addictive; to become a Christian is to seek to overcome the power of that addiction.

What began as a ritual solely for converts eventually transformed into a ritual of spiritual renewal for all Christians. Fasting continued to be a part of the observance. Our observance of Pancake Day is a relic of the time when people lived without large pantries of food items with long shelf lives. During Lent, people ate only plain foods. As Lent approached, they used up their limited stock of perishable rich foods so as not to waste them.

When I was ordained as a pastor, I was asked if I would recommend fasting as a religious discipline. I said yes, but one cannot see it in my waistline. For the most part, I’m not a very good example of fasting. To fulfill all righteousness, however, I commend to you Jesus’ own words on the subject:

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

It turns out, however, that Jesus wasn’t much of a faster himself. Oh, sure, he was good at it. He fasted 40 days in the wilderness of temptation. But overall, he was known more as an eater than as a faster.

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” ‘ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” (Mathew 11:18-19)

Jesus withdrew from people from time to time, and there were times he went without food and drink. For the most part, however, Jesus always seemed to be eating with folks. The Pharisees were world-class fasters; they fasted twice weekly (Monday and Thursday, Didache 8:1). John and his disciples were also notable for their fasting. Jesus and his disciples weren’t, and John’s disciples were curious about that.

Then John’s disciples came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The days will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Matthew 9:14-15)

There were a variety of approaches to fasting in Second Temple Judaism. However frequently one fasted, fasting served as a religious practice, not unlike daily prayers, circumcision, temple sacrifices, observing the prescribed festivals and keeping kosher. Modern Christian writers search in vain for fasting’s origins in its health benefits or its sociological function. As a religious ritual, it is no more mysterious than any other such act. It was widely practiced in varying forms and to varying degrees within Judaism. It was also an important practice in the second century church. What is missing from all of this, however, is any New Testament expectation that Gentile converts to Christianity fast as a matter of religious obligation.

Note, then, that one does not fast in Lent because eating itself is evil or because the New Testament commands it. If one fasts, one does so because there is a time for fasting and a time for feasting. Both belong to the rhythm of a Christian’s spiritual life, just as they were both present in the life of Christ. That, I think, is the more basic foundation of Lent. Even for those of us who live primarily within the secular world (that is, we’re not monks or living within intentional communities), there are times when a more intense focus on our spiritual lives is proper and appropriate. There are a number of ways, however, that one can approach this task. Whatever approach we take, it seems to me that there are a number important tasks to accomplish. Among them are:

  • re-grounding ourselves in the foundational matters of the Christan faith
  • finding freedom from the things that injure us, damage our relationships and harm our world
  • strengthening our connection to the Christian community
  • stretching ourselves to grow beyond our comfort zones
  • shifting the focus of our religious lives away from our own needs and wants to God and our neighbor

One doesn’t temporarily become a better Christian during Lent. The purpose of the Lenten exercise is not found in the spiritual rigor itself, but in the personal and communal transformation that takes place. The point is to come out at the other end of the process more like the person God envisions us to be and better prepared to live faithfully in this world. It’s the residual effects that matter most. Fasting can be a part of that mix, but so can a number of other practices and activities.

So enjoy your pancakes, even if you’re not cleaning out the cupboard. Good food is a gift from God. Tomorrow, it’s time to buckle down for awhile as we move toward the central festival of our faith: the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. May the grace and power of God in Christ Jesus lead us all toward greater Christian maturity this Lent.