(RNS) — It’s a day with a lot of names — Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Fastnacht — but around our house, it was always Pancake Day.
Though the Bowler girls were not brought up to be great observers of the church calendar, we always knew when it was time to pull out the maple syrup, slab butter in the pan and drop in the batter. A tradition we carry on today with our son Zach.
(I’m almost certain more of those chocolate chips ended up in his mouth than on the pancakes … )
In the little church I grew up in, not much attention was paid to liturgy or the Christian calendar. We were a one-off church with no hierarchy, bishops or oversized gowns for clergy or choir. It was simple worship — Mennonite-flavored and plain: solid sermons, Wesleyan hymns, 19th-century gospel music and the occasional contemporary chorus sung by a congregation with wonderful voices and no discernible sense of rhythm.
Little was said of Epiphany or Pentecost or the Ascension; one Sunday was much like the next.
It was not until I was a graduate student in the history of Christianity that I began to learn about the riches of the church year. Life is never lived in a straight line; we know all too well about ups and downs. The ancient church in its wisdom decreed that the Christian year, too, would have its rhythms: time of joy and celebration, of discipline and penitence; time to be outrageously happy and time to be suitably gloomy. There would be periods of consumption and periods of abstinence.
To everything, as Ecclesiastes says, there is a season.
We can see that so plainly this week. On Tuesday, we marked the end of Carnival, historically, the last chance to party for months — thus the extravagant use of eggs, fats, king cake and extra chocolate chips in our pancakes.
Eat, drink and be merry, for on Wednesday we diet.
Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, that seven-week period of preparation and repentance, the time that the church used to ready new Christians for baptism and penitent sinners to be readmitted to the fold. And it begins with the shock of Ash Wednesday.
In a world that prizes self-affirmation, confidence and pride, Ash Wednesday comes as a slap in the face, a bracing cold shower of reality. Inescapably, we are told of our lingering weaknesses, faults and helplessness.
We are, apparently, not such big shots after all. On this night, our mortality is literally rubbed in our faces. The branches that have been saved from last year’s Palm Sunday service, the ones waved so joyously by our children as they paraded around the church, have been burnt and a nasty paste made of them.
We listen to the prayer:
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
We kneel before our pastor and those hands that have, on other days, fed us the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper now smear a rough cross on our foreheads with the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This beautiful and humbling ritual is perhaps the clearest statement that we will ever hear about our status as temporary. Humans are such transient and fragile beings, so unnecessary to the functioning of the universe. Our presence is precarious. We will search in vain for any guarantees of our continued health, future success or, even, the promise of tomorrow.
Fortunately, we have a God who loves us and, for some divine mystery, values our presence. Let us then use these next 40 days to learn to lean on the One who keeps us around and prepare for the majesty, terror and mystery of Easter Week.
Each week, I’ll be sharing a reflection on Lent, as we walk toward the cross. It’s a season that resonated so profoundly when I was confronted with my finitude.
There’s something about Lent that makes me feel like I’m not the only one on the losing team. So may we learn to stare down the abyss together.
(Kate Bowler is the author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel” and the New York Times best-selling memoir “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” which she wrote after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at age 35. She also hosts the popular podcast “Everything Happens” and is an associate professor at Duke Divinity School. Kate and her family live in Durham, N.C. This piece originally appeared at katebowler.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)