Ash Wednesday 2016

February 10, 2016—Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Joel 2:12-13, Matthew 11:28-30

A couple of years ago, the Associated Press carried a story about a woman in Olney, England, named Dawn Gallyot who defied snow and a biting wind to beat seven other women to the finish line in the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake race. In her first race, the 38-year-old schoolteacher made the 415-yard dash from a pub in the market square to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul with a pancake and a frying pan in her hand in 73 seconds. That was 9.5 seconds slower than the previous year’s pace. Each woman must flip a pancake in the frying pan at the start and at the finish of the race. The record is 58 seconds. Mrs. Gallyot reportedly wore a traditional headscarf and apron, but opted for modern running shoes.

Shrove Tuesday, known in England as Pancake Day, is traditionally the last day for merrymaking before the start of Lent. Pancakes are thought to be a good way to get in the eggs and fat that faithful church people were supposed to give up for Lent. Legend has it that the Olney race started in 1445 when a housewife, dashing to get to church on time, arrived at the service clutching in her hand a frying pan with a pancake still in it.

The pancake race is but one of many traditions that have grown up around the season of Lent.

A few years back I worked as an ethicist for a nation-wide health system based just outside of Detroit. That’s when I first learned about Paczki Day. It also is a beloved tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. These round, sugar coated, fruit or cream-filled pastries are served up annually on the day before Lent. In cities around the country and particularly in the Polish communities of Midwestern cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, lard, sugar, eggs, fruit and cream are used to create these concoctions.

At Dinkel’s Bakery in Chicago, the morning of Fat Tuesday is a madhouse. A few patrons grab for coffee and king cakes in the 92-year-old North Side bakery, but what everyone is really there for are the paczki. The fryers have been working overtime since the Thursday before and an estimated 18,000 paczki are ready for Tuesday’s morning rush. The bakery continues to produce them throughout the day as people stop in again after work to bring fresh ones home.

In Hamtramck, the heavily Polish enclave of metro Detroit, groups like the Polish League of American Veterans have hosted paczki-eating contests and a neighborhood bar, Small’s, serves up vodka-filled mini paczki (dubbed “paczki bombs.”) Paczki means “little package” in Polish. But weighing in at 390 calories each and containing 13 grams of fat in one paczki, they make Dunkin Donuts seem like a healthy treat. They’re delicious and you can’t have just one because they come in so many flavors that it’s hard to choose. But when they hit your stomach it’s as if you’ve swallowed a bad of rocks. Fasting on Ash Wednesday is almost pleasurable.
New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is another — one last blowout before a season of denial. And of course we have our own tradition in the fun and food that we shared last night.

Throughout the years, Lent has been associated with fasting and denial with giving up something. And though I see some value in that, and I’ll talk more about that on Sunday, the real intent of Lent is that we look within; we change our hearts and not our diets.

The Old Testament prophet Joel puts it well when he says, “Even now, return to me with all your heart. The first task of Lent is not fasting or alms giving. It’s not giving up sweets or going off fatty foods. It is repentance — repentance that brings us before the Lord. But let’s look at that word. Unfortunately there have been some misguided interpretations of the call for repentance; leaving people feeling sinful, bad, guilty, or ashamed of themselves. The Greek word used for repentance is a beautiful one: metanoia. It literally means to change one’s mind and purpose, as the result knowledge.

God calls us to himself. Come spend time with me. Would God invite us, call us over and over again if we were seen as bad? Do we invite people we don’t like to spend time with us? God calls us because God loves us.

And when we spend time with God, we may change our mind about how we prioritize our time and energy. We may assess our purpose.
The Lenten practice of receiving ashes is meant to remind us about what is lasting and what isn’t; about what is important and what isn’t.
We are all so busy. How often do we need to regroup and schedule time for exercise or connecting with an old friend? In both Joel and Matthew we hear God tenderly inviting us to share quality time; bidding us to simplify our lives, spending less time on the unimportant, what will be gone tomorrow, like ashes blown away, and giving more attention to what really matters – what is lasting. God gently and consistently invites us into intimacy. Lent is a time to say, okay. Let’s do it.