The day before Ash Wednesday brings to an end the parades of Mardi Gras (French for ‘Fat Tuesday). Those celebrations likely have their history in some of the pagan festivals of Europe, but when those festivals came to France, they became more closely related to the Church. When they went to England, they became Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. Here, at St. Matthew’s, we get the best of both—and now that we’ve done it two years in a row, making it a time-honored tradition—we’ll have to call it Gumbo Day. When these festivals traveled south to the Caribbean and further into Brazil, they became known as Carnivale. Of all the names given, this one perhaps describes it best.
The word carnival comes from the combining of two Latin words: carnem (“flesh”) + levāre (“lighten, raise”)—carnem vale meaning, “Farewell to the flesh.” Farewell to those things that separate us from God. It is this definition that inspired Thomas Merton, in 1953, to write in his journal:
Carnivale, farewell to the flesh. It is a poor joke to be merry about leaving the flesh, as if we were to return to it once again. What would be the good of Lent, if it were only temporary?
Jesus nevertheless died in order to return to His flesh; in order to raise His own body glorious from the dead, and in order to raise our bodies with Him. “Unless the grain of wheat, falling into the ground, dies, itself remains alone.” So we cast off the flesh, not out of contempt, but in order to heal the flesh in the mercy of penance and restore it to the Spirit to which it belongs. And all creation waits in anguish for our victory and our bodies’ glory.
God wills us to recover all the joys of His created world in the Spirit, by denying ourselves what is really no joy—what only ends in the flesh. “The flesh profits nothing.” (A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals, February 19)
“What would be the good of Lent if it were only temporary?” What would be the good of Lent if all the practices we establish for our lives in order to draw nearer to God during this season were cast off on Easter Sunday? What would be the good of Lent if we returned to Fat Tuesday lives?
One of the things I give up most Lents is social media—all that scrolling. I’m not sure how much time I spend on it, which tells me it is probably too much. I also know that I’ll pick it back up again after Easter. It is something I enjoy. That’s a Lenten practice that I think can be temporary, but what if I decided that I would also spend more time in prayer or more time reading the Word of God? Should that be temporary? “Oh, it’s just a Lent thing. Only temporary.” I’ll give a bit of time to God for a few weeks, but when the season is over, I can quit that silliness. That’s not how it is supposed to work. Our Lenten practices should bring about permanent changes, transformations in our lives.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” Remember that you are God’s, and your life with Him is not temporary. Let your Lenten practices become—not just something you are doing for a season, but instead, let them become a part of who you are.
One Reply to “Sermon: Ash Wednesday”
You had me at Pancake Day! What a wonderful reminder it is not just for 40 days. I think it helps me make it a habit, instead of counting down the days until I can “do” whatever it is again.