In Chicago, today is fondly known by many as Pączki today. Pączki is a Polish pastry that is always eaten on the day before Ash Wednesday. The first time I learned about them was in my first year at a church when the gentleman who always brought donuts into the church office asked me on the Monday before Ash Wednesday what kind he could buy me. I thought he asked me what kind of “push key” I wanted. Confused, I told him I would certainly like whatever he picked out for me. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the yummy deliciousness on my desk. Something I looked forward to each year afterward.
Pączkis are part of a Shrove Tuesday tradition. Shrove comes from the word shrive, which means absolve. Shrove Tuesday marks the last day before Lent, traditionally a period of absolution and abstinence. In some cultures, this was and is still associated with clearing your cupboards of goods such as sugar, fats, and eggs to use up before the 40-day fasting season of Lent begins. And what better way to use sugar, fats, and eggs than making pączkis?
Fat Tuesday, which sounds much more elegant in French—Mardi Gras—is based on the same concept. However, eating, drinking, and indulging before giving up gluttonous ways is far from elegant.
I find it interesting that rituals and pre-Lenten celebrations reveal our tendencies to live in the extremes. Either you are abstaining from temptations or giving in without abandon. Either you are playing the game with rules, or the rules are thrown out the window.
Think about when someone is preparing to go on a diet. What is the first thing they do? Go on a binge.
Someone is about to get married. What do the friends do from them? Throw a party, a last hurrah.
Before we move into a season of what we see as being “good,” we want to get out all of our “bad” first. This also reveals the ways we bristle against the rules. Tell someone you can’t do something, and immediately they want to do it. Create a law, rule, or policy; immediately, someone will question it and be tempted to break it.
But instead of seeing the season of Lent in extremes, it is helpful to consider what this season can be for us.
Lent does not have to be…
A season of killing your joy.
A last chance to get it right, finally.
Or a time of feeling bad about how much we mess up and miss the mark.
Lent can be…
An opportunity to think about the things we can do better.
An occasion to reflect on why we have gotten into unhealthy and unhelpful habits, patterns, or behaviors.
A time to admit we are not perfect (and we don’t have to be), but we are forgiven.
So, as you prepare for Lent, consider what this season could mean for you, not simply by living in the extremes or giving up certain food groups, but by how you can fully experience the renewal of God’s grace.
Rev. Shana Johnson, ISC Conference Minister