The season of Lent is upon us. In the Christian calendar, Lent represents the 40 days before Easter, but actually numbers between 44 and 46 days, depending upon whether or not it ends on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) or Easter Saturday, and somehow the Sundays do not end up in the total. Regardless of the number, this begins the march to Easter. While not mentioned in the bible, the season of Lent represents a time of feeling and fasting, repenting and renewing. It is a ritual to reflect upon the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting, as mentioned in the book of Matthew.
I have long struggled with my faith and spirituality and religion, but finally I realize that struggling with it is my path. I am now comfortable with that endeavor and recognize that I am not alone. I struggle to find a spiritual home, but I am not homeless. I have learned that it is not easy, but maybe it means more to me in the answers I am able to uncover. In spite of the struggle, or because of it, I have always loved the season of Lent. When I was a child and belief seemed simple, I gave up chocolate most years and then gorged myself silly on Easter afternoons. Perhaps the broader messages of reflection and sacrifice did not always penetrate my childhood chocolate haze. As I grew older, I did not always keep up the traditions, but still looked forward to the late-winter season, plodding to spring and renewal, and eventually to the centerpiece of Christian belief: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is a day (or weekend) now associated with thousands of plastic beads thrown in New Orleans, but there is a long tradition of eating rich and fatty foods before the season of Lent gives way to periodic fasting and sacrifice. It is the party before the purge, if you will. It is widely believed that Lent and the traditions of ash crosses smudged onto foreheads is a Catholic tradition, but many Protestant churches continue and celebrate the tradition as well. The cross, made with ash, on the forehead, represents the rebirth and rising. We become the ashes as Genesis 3 says, “we are earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.” The refrain, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) is repeated after one receives the ashes. The ashes represent our physical being, as well as the Israelite tradition of repenting in dust and ashes.
In preparation for Fat Tuesday, also Shrove Tuesday, I made waffles on Sunday. Usually pancakes are served on this special Tuesday before Lent, also known as Pancake Day. Pancakes with eggs and occasionally butter and sugar, are thought to be a decadent and resplendent food. Making them before Lent is also a way to use up the rich ingredients that have collected in the larder, before the season of fasting begins. Since my pancakes tend to be uneven and spottily cooked, I opted for waffles. I figured I would be okay, since the recipes are fairly similar: flour, eggs, baking powder, salt, and a bit of melted butter. After a quick stir, I poured the batter onto the hot waffle iron. A hiss, a click, a few minutes ticked by, the steps repeated, and then glorious waffles. I made a whole batch for Sunday breakfast, leaving a few to eat on Tuesday.
I got up extra early on Tuesday, so I grabbed two waffles and ate them, cold and chewy, on the way to work. I drank coffee from my ceramic mug and enjoyed the quiet drive in the dark, before the sunrise. Tuesday was a whirlwind of teaching and checking in with my dad who endured a short hospital stay the night before. When I got home late that afternoon, I prepared for a quiet evening at home. I called my dad and we chatted for a bit and despite his recent hospitalization, I could tell he was feeling back to normal. I knew because we were able to squeeze politics into our conversation as we wondered about the Texas primaries and the Colorado party caucuses. I hung up the phone, planning to return to my room for some unearthing of objects and sorting of laundry. The phone rang again, this time it was my sister at work. We made plans to celebrate our own version of “Fat Tuesday.”
I picked up Kelly, my fellow partner in crime, and we sped to a pair of our favorite restaurants, right next door to each other. At the little Mexican restaurant, we tucked into a booth for margaritas and chips and salsa. Salt on the rims of the glasses, she ordered hers on the rocks while I requested mine frozen. Purists would laugh at my tequila blasphemy, but I love the slurp and thickness of the icy liquid (at least I know not to order a flavored marg) and the effect I cannot get grinding ice with my home blender. In my greed, I even felt the pangs of frozen-margarita-chest, similar to ice cream headaches from childhood. Fat Tuesday for sure! The chip basket empty, the glasses relieved of their salt, we paid the check and headed next door for dinner. We claimed another booth and pored over the menu, I chose flank steak, mashed potatoes, and kale with mushrooms. My sister opted for a smaller plate with a petit beef filet and steamed vegetables. She got a glass of a local brew and I ordered a glass of red wine. Dinner commenced with giggles and sharing bites of food, maybe only in the language that sisters speak. If you are one of the few who read this blog, you may be wondering at the gluttony of my sister and me with brownies a few days ago and our Oscar night hors d’oeuvres this past Sunday. Let me just say that we are feeling the effects of all the splendor and look forward to returning to a bit of normalcy and restraint.
After the evening’s food and alcohol fest, we gulped water and waited at the restaurant quite a while before driving home. In the late night darkness, sprinkles of snow turned to rain showers and the whole world smelled clean. As soon as I unlocked the door of home, I could feel the gravitational pull of bed and a book. I set my alarm, knowing that the morning ritual of ashes would come early. At five o’clock, a couple of minutes before the much-to-early-shrill, I reset the alarm for 6:15 and questioned my commitment to Ash Wednesday. I rolled over and fell quickly asleep. I woke up at 6:11, pleased I had beaten the alarm, and jumped into a green turtleneck, grey pants, and black boots. I brushed my teeth and headed out the door after a few gulps of water. My fasting day had begun. Last week, I discovered a church that was offering “drive thru ashes.” It was a little far from the office, but not much of a detour on such a special occasion. Despite my extra hour of sleep, I calculated I had time for the extra commute before the day unfolded. I squeaked in to the church parking lot with plenty of time and enjoyed a few minutes of prayer after the smiling minister shared his ashes and a benediction. I could see the smudge in the rear-view mirror and felt the trepidation of wearing the “badge” all day in public and at work, with part of my day in a school. In addition to my struggles in faith, I feel uncomfortable proclaiming my faith out loud and to others. I realized that this was part of my challenge for the day. For me to truly embrace Ash Wednesday, I needed to wear the ashes with honor and quiet dignity. I prayed for strength and courage and commitment.
Throughout the day, walking down the hall in the office, loading or unloading my car with teaching supplies, giving a science presentation to fourth and fifth graders, attending a reception for teachers and principals, and striding through the library to the study carrel to write this, I wore the ashes. Some acknowledged it, “Oh, it’s Ash Wednesday!” A co-worker (a mechanic) thought I had grease on my forehead and I just smiled. I realized it’s not a big deal, but it would have been a big deal if I did not step forward and participate.
I will sleep with this sign on my forehead and tomorrow morning in the shower the faded smudge will wash away down the drain. I, however, have been transformed, if just slightly. It’s the beginning of Lent, a time for reflecting and a time for committing to my faith, struggles and all. For me, rituals are the outside ways to get to the inside. Through the comfort and routine of ritual, we can be challenged to broaden our perspectives and seek something more meaningful.
For the season of Lent, I will be fasting on Wednesdays and Sundays. Some may not see that as pure fasting, as I will eat a small meal at the end of those days, but I will try. This is for religious purposes and spiritual purposes. It is both an action and a prayer. On Wednesdays, it is also for political purposes, in solidarity with the organization Fast for Families, “We are fasting as an act of prayer for the families that are torn apart daily by deportations and our broken immigration system.” On Sundays, it is for me, my own private act and prayer. I will also be taking part in the ritual of giving things up for Lent. The idea is that by giving up things that are pleasurable, one can reflect and remove the distractions and vices in our lives. The ideas and qualities of discipline, moderation, and strength are important to me. I feel I need this for spiritual growth and as a reminder of all that is holy. I am giving up chocolate, meat, and alcohol, which lately have been all-to-easy to rely upon to lift my mood or to treat myself. I am also giving up swearing and abstaining from junk food. In loosening the grip of these vices and bad habits, I hope to regain a balance. In some ways, I hope to go back to an earlier self. I was a strict vegetarian for years and welcome Lent to help return me to that lifestyle permanently.
Through rituals, acts of sacrifice, prayer, and reflection, I welcome Lent. I enjoy the season and community of others doing the same. I reach more deeply, I examine my struggles. I reset and do the uncomfortable work of looking within. I dust off my faith and see it in the clear light of Lent. I seek community. I look for a spiritual home. I breathe. I take a step. I reflect. I cower after making these proclamations. And then I pray.