Today is Shrove Tuesday, when families all over the world gather together in their kitchens, cracking eggs, stirring batter and making pancakes that they toss in the air amidst howls of laughter and eat together around the table with all sorts of sweet things like sugar and lemon, maple syrup and blueberries, or strawberries and cream. This idyllic scene is how I love to remember this special time of year. As a mum of four I always looked forward to Pancake Day and tried to recreate this perfect picture every year in our home, but it didn’t always work out quite as I had planned. It would often begin well but there were soon arguments as the children took it in turns to make their own pancake and try and toss it, and inevitably drop it, or it stuck to the pan, and then their would be tears, and cries of, ‘It’s not fair, I can’t do it, or he’s taking too long, its my turn”. Traditionally, the reason we celebrate Shrove Tuesday and make pancakes is to use up all the rich foods like eggs, milk and sugar before the season of fasting begins the following day on Ash Wednesday for the 40 days of Lent. The word ‘shrove’ comes from the English word ‘shrive’ which means to obtain absolution for your sins through confession and penance. Therefore it is the party before the more serious task of living more simply, of reflecting on our excesses and repenting of our greed and selfishness.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Special services are held in which we are invited to come before God, confess our sins and be marked with the symbol of the cross of Christ on our foreheads with ashes, reminding us of our own mortality, that it was from dust that we came and to dust that we shall return, (Genesis 3:19) and linking to the Old Testament tradition of the wearing of sackcloth and ashes at times of repentance and sorrow. In much of Western culture and churches today, we have forgotten the significance of this time of year and the deep meaning that is acted out in these rituals be they in the family home or in the church sanctuary. Personally I find that the acting out of rituals or the making use of material objects like ashes, or flour, eggs and sugar, help me to come to a place of prayer, that by engaging my body and my senses physically in an act of celebration or repentance, helps me to offer my self to Christ more fully. In many contemporary churches we tend to be good at the celebration, the lively worship, the praises and the raising of hands, but we fail to balance this with the Biblical call to confession, lament, to solitude, and simplicity, to acknowledging our own mortality. We instead consistently sing of resurrection, and perhaps deny the truth that we will die before we are raised again, that we will, each and every one of us, return to dust.
The Bible does not run away from this truth, and this is what the season of Lent teaches us, that beauty arises from the ashes, that the Hebrew nation spent 40 years wandering the wilderness before God brought them to the promised land. That Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the word of God on Mount Sinai, and that Jesus spent 40 days alone and fasting in the wilderness, where he was tempted in the same ways we are, before he was able to begin his ministry of healing and salvation. The ashes and the wilderness is not a part of life we can escape. It is a part of the human condition.
Celebrating the season of Lent each year helps us to put our lives in perspective, to not get too haughty or proud, to put aside things that have begun to become too important to us, to let go of our riches, our excesses, our partying and instead to consider our weakness and vulnerability, not just within ourselves but in those around us, and to share what we have, to give away what we realise we don’t need, to comfort those who are suffering and to attempt to live more simply, more reflective, more prayerful lives as we prepare ourselves for the unfolding story of Passion Week.
In PassionArt: BE STILL exhibited at Manchester Cathedral during Lent 2016 are Julian Stair’s ceramic vessels reference the containment of ashes after death. Funerary jars remind us that we are made from the dust of the earth and to the earth we will return. They help us to gain a perspective on our lives when we get too proud, and they are a comfort for those who are grieving because they acknowledge and make material the reality and pain of their loss. The clay that forms them comes from the earth, then carefully crafted by the potters hand they take their unique form before taking their place in the burning furnace that will refine them into their final state of beauty. I see so many links to our lives in this process and this work. Formed by the heavenly potters loving hands, I am uniquely made and shaped through the continual turning of the wheel of my earthly life. If I desire eternal life, then like the pot, I need to experience the heat of the fire that will transform me from a soft clay jar into a permanent vessel. I cannot avoid this process, it is the only way. Lent is a time when I am invited to remember this, to slow down and reflect on the lessons I am learning on the constantly spinning wheel that is my life, and to learn to embrace the heat of hard times when it touches my life knowing that it is a part of the process of eternal life.
Consider recovering the true meaning of Lent over the next 40 days, taking time each day to pause, be still and reflect on the way your life is lived .
Lesley Sutton is curator of PassionArt: Be Still, an artist, mother and pastors wife.