In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Yesterday was a day of celebration and feasting in many places around the world. It’s a day known by several names: Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday or Pancake Day, Pfannkuchentag in German, Carnival, and Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras in French. Did you celebrate yesterday? Yesterday at our staff and calendar meeting, I treated some of my coworkers to pączki, the cream- or fruit-filled doughnuts that are a Polish tradition for Fat Tuesday. In this case, they were Bavarian cream-filled. So they’re three thousand calories (I exaggerate), but they were tasty! The author of the Reflections devotions for Lent is a pastor in Bossier City, Louisiana, and he writes that the whole state celebrates and parties on Fat Tuesday. The Mardi Gras revelry in New Orleans is well known, even notorious. One of our sister congregations in the area observed Pfannkuchentag with a traditional German pancake feast yesterday. Carnival, as celebrated in many countries, is marked with festive music and colorful parades. The name refers to the eating of meat. In Brazil, Carnival is a major part of the nation’s culture. The idea behind Fat Tuesday, as it is practiced—by whatever name it is called—is one last opportunity to feast and even gorge yourself before beginning the fasting of the season of Lent.
One name for yesterday does tie in more closely to the start of Lent. The shrove of Shrove Tuesday is the past tense of shrive, meaning to confess sins and receive absolution, or to hear confessions and give absolution. The day of celebration and feasting goes by many names. This day, the first day of Lent, the day of repentance and fasting, has just one name: Ash Wednesday. What a contrast! Fat Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday, Doughnut Tuesday, if you will, Meat Tuesday, versus Ash Wednesday. The original point of the Tuesday feast was to get rid of all the fats in the house so they wouldn’t be present during the Lenten fast, so one wouldn’t be tempted to use them. It’s a custom somewhat parallel to the command of the LORD through Moses given in preparation for the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, in Exodus 12:15, “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.”
The point of Ash Wednesday, of wearing ashes in the shape of a cross on your forehead, is sin. The point of the words spoken with the imposition of ashes is sin. “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.” The words which the LORD God spoke to the man, Adam, after the half-hearted confession of the man and the woman that they had sinned, that they had disregarded the one commandment that He had given them. One commandment, one “thou shalt not,” that’s all they had to keep, and they didn’t! Would you or I have done any better? Could we? Prove it, if you can. But I’m special, I’m unique. Yes, you’re special—just like the billions of other sinners who have ever lived. It’s far easier to prove that you and I take after Dad and Mom in this. We confess with David in Psalm 51, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin did my mother conceive me” (v. 5). We are dust, animated and made alive by the Breath of God. We know what God said would be the consequence of breaking that one commandment: “In the day that you eat of it, dying you shall die.” Because of sin, we all shall return to the dust from which we were taken. Ashes are like dust; but ashes, the remains from burning, are a reminder of sacrifice. In declaring the verdict of guilt and the punishment of death for sin, the LORD God also promised the Savior, the One who would be The Sacrifice for sin. The one great Sacrifice for sin would be offered up, slain, His blood shed, on a cross-shaped altar.
Fasting is not meant to help you lose weight or for some other self-serving purpose. Fasting is a spiritual discipline, meant to focus the one observing it, focus the body, the mind, the heart, and the will. Focus on Him who kept the fast for us for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. Fasting in and of itself is not a manmade “good work” intended to earn God’s favor. For that would make fasting wicked and a sin, and that would make Jesus’ fast a sin, and Jesus a sinner. Jesus was not without sustenance in the wilderness. Remember what He told His disciples at the well of Sychar in Samaria, “I have food to eat that you do not know about. … My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” (Jn 4:32, 34). In His fasting, Jesus put His full reliance on His heavenly Father’s provision in all circumstances.
Many people observe the custom of giving up something for Lent. It’s a modified form of fasting, giving up something you enjoy for a time. I once gave up peanut butter for Lent. Peanut butter is something I like, and it makes for a quick, easy, and nutritious lunch. I don’t say this to boast; on the contrary, after a while I was quite grudging in keeping it. Instead of giving up, I found myself turning to other things that were more indulgent than peanut butter. If your plan is to gorge yourself before you begin fasting for Lent, then it’s better not to fast. One of my seminary classmates, a former Roman Catholic, told about what he observed with the practice of giving up meat for Lent and eating fish instead. Beef and pork are rich, indulgent foods, while fish is supposed to be humble. It didn’t really seem humble to him that people would forgo eating a hamburger because it’s beef, yet eat lobster because it’s “fish.”
Jesus says, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. … But when you fast, anoint your head with oil and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others” (Mt 6:16–18). Let no one know that you’re fasting. Don’t tell people. Don’t make a show of it. Eating lobster instead of hamburger is really making a show, even a mockery, of the fast. Again, the point of fasting is to focus on Him who sustains us by His Word. Ash Wednesday isn’t about you, about what you give up for Lent. It’s about Jesus and what He gave up for you, His life into death, His righteousness in exchange for your sin. If you want to give up something for Lent, how about giving up sinning? And giving up the love of sinning while you’re at it? We ask this of our Lord in the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”: “Take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be; End of faith, as its beginning, Set our hearts at liberty” (LSB 700, st. 2). What are your favorite peccadillos, your most-loved “little white sins”? Oh, but Pastor, those aren’t really that bad, are they? It’s not as though God will send me to hell over that! Do you want to test Him on that? Remember what Moses and Jesus said about that: “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test” (Dt 6:16; Mt 4:7).
Give up sinning for Lent—and for ever! Give up the love of sinning for Lent—and for ever! Can you do that, on your own initiative, by your own power? No. Still, we keep trying, don’t we? The Prophet Joel shows us how futile and hopeless our efforts are. He calls the people of Israel, “Return to the LORD, your God,” in worship, “for He is gracious and merciful” (Jl 2:12). Joel calls the people to worship, to return to where God has said in His Word that He will be present for His people, present to bestow His grace and mercy on them. Come first not to do for Him. Because of sin, you cannot do for Him, nor can you please Him. He comes first to serve you. Joel says, “Blow the trumpet,” the shofar, the ram’s horn. The blowing of the shofar signals the presence of the LORD among His people. The ram’s horn is a reminder of the ram, the adult male lamb, from God, offered up by Abraham as the substitute for his son Isaac, and for all Israel, all God’s people. Sound familiar? This is the divine liturgy, the Divine Service, in which the Divine, the LORD your God, comes in service to you. Because of sin, you could not come to Him. “Be reconciled to God,” the Apostle Paul says. You cannot reconcile yourself to God; you need a go-between, and that’s where Paul begins his plea: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
So for Lent, give up trying to make yourself pleasing to God. Give it up not only for Lent, but for the rest of your earthly life. You are well pleasing to God in Christ, because of what Jesus has done for you. The cross of ashes is a reminder, and a plea. As you see it on the forehead of a fellow believer in Jesus, pray for that person, that he may not fall into temptation and sin, and pray the same for yourself. Pray for strength from Christ and the Holy Spirit. For Lent, also take up something. Take up daily the drowning of the Old Adam in the daily remembrance of your baptism. Take up the body and blood of Jesus, for the forgiveness of all your sins. And take up your cross daily, being conformed to the likeness of Christ through every trial, tribulation, and suffering that comes your way on your earthly pilgrimage. Take these up daily, for Lent, and for ever.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding,
keep your hearts and minds in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.