#48 — Fastnachts and Ashes: Mennonites and Lent

(This week’s blog is adapted from a Lenten sermon I preached in 2013.)

Ten years ago, I spent Shrove Tuesday in my hometown. It’s known as Fastnacht Day there – the eve of the fast. Fastnacht Day in Souderton was and still is the time to eat a particular kind of doughnut called a Fastnacht. This heavy concoction made with potato flour can be rolled in white sugar or in powdered sugar – messier, but much tastier.

Ash-Wednesday
From Waterloo North Mennonite Church

That Tuesday, I ate a Fastnacht out of nostalgia, but with a tinge of sadness. For in my Mennonite community when I was growing up, we ate Fastnachts but didn’t practice Lent. But what is Fastnacht Day without Lent?  Or put another way, what do the pancakes of Tuesday mean without the ashes of Wednesday?

I first experienced the ashes thirty years ago at the Lutheran Church in St. Jacobs, Ontario. There in a community service sponsored by the village churches, I knelt at the altar rail, received ashes on my forehead in the form of a cross, and heard these solemn words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The ashes and those words always remind me that I am mortal. I am a creature, inclined towards sin. But the ashes are applied to my forehead in the form of the cross.

So at the very same time that I am reminded of my mortality and my human frailty, I am just as strongly reminded that I am made in God’s image…that I belong to Christ…that Christ claims me and I claim Christ.

It’s a full and paradoxical understanding of myself that is always humbling, often frightening, and yet in some odd way reassuring and comforting.  For this paradoxical view of myself feels true and whole.

Lent is a time to find once again my true home in Christ, to distinguish between the many voices impinging on me, and to listen carefully for God’s leading.

Desert-near-Dead-Sea Each year on the first Sunday of Lent, I take comfort and courage in the story of Jesus remembering who he is, as he distinguishes between voices in the harsh Judean wilderness while fasting shortly after his baptism.

And it seems to me that if we truly enter the landscape of Lent, we’re bound to get at least a whiff of wilderness. For Lent invites us to a stripping down, to a severe dependence on God on our way to a renewed sense of what’s important.

Chapel-Banner-smallWilderness may sometimes be a geographic place. I fondly remember the Lenten banners created for Conrad Grebel University College one year by an international student. “In Canada, wilderness is pine trees,” he said after spending a summer planting trees up north!

Yet wilderness is primarily a place of the spirit, an interior place. Sometimes life circumstances put us there and we cling to God and community as severe difficulties strip us bare and threaten to undo us. At other times wilderness is a place of the spirit we will ourselves to enter.

However we get there, the consolation is that wilderness is not a God-forsaken place. It does not belong to the powers of evil; it too is a place where God dwells.  On the risky, sacred ground of wilderness, God meets us in Lent.

Spiritual disciplines in Lent are meant to help us pause…to help us distinguish between voices, as Jesus did. My Lenten practices vary from year to year. I don’t give something up for the sake of giving something up, but I almost always engage in a deliberate practice.

One Lent years ago, I decided that as a spiritual discipline I was not going to buy any new clothes for Easter, not even a new pair of shoes. For when I was a little girl, Easter had always included a major shopping expedition. Part of the joy of Easter was showing up in church in a new outfit.

Radical-GratitudeAs an adult, I was stunned and embarrassed by what happened when I bought no new clothes or shoes for Easter. I found myself quietly crying as I sat in the Easter service that year. Pulling apart the joy of Easter from the joy of dressing up in new clothes ended up being unexpectedly hard spiritual work….

Another year I decided to give up grumbling, and focus on gratitude instead. At the same time I read Mary Jo Leddy’s book Radical Gratitude with a group.

I almost always follow a Lenten devotional guide. Sometimes it’s the Lenten Guided Prayer sheets from the Mennonite Spiritual Directors of Eastern Canada. At other times I pick up a book such as The Awkward Season or Simplifying the Soul, my choice for 2018.

SimplifyingOften I also focus on particular music, as I’m doing by attending Taize services in the community this year. At church this Lent we’re using my favorite Taize refrain, “Jesus remember me” each week following the Gospel reading (Hymnal: A Worship Book, # 247).

Lenten practices bring me back to basics and help me remember who I am and whose I am. In this way, they revive my soul.

Question for Reflection:

How, if at all, do you mark Lent? What spiritual practices have revived your soul?

Next week: Good Friday

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