Sister Helen Prejean: The Face of Love

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Pancakes, Fat Tuesday, and Cheering for the Losing Team

[Listen to a recording of today’s article by clicking play below.]

It’s a day with a lot of names—Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Fastnacht—but around our house it was always Pancake Day. Though the Bowler girls were not brought up to be great observers of the church calendar, we always knew when it was time to pull out the maple syrup, slab butter in the pan, and drop in the batter. A tradition we carry on today with Zach (pictured above with his grandma. I’m almost certain more of those chocolate chips ended up in his mouth than on the pancakes…)

In the little church I grew up in, not much attention was paid to liturgy or the Christian calendar. We were a one-off church with no hierarchy, bishops, or oversized gowns for clergy or choir. It was simple worship—Mennonite-flavoured and plain: solid sermons, Wesleyan hymns, nineteenth-century gospel music, and the occasional contemporary chorus sung by a congregation with wonderful voices and no discernible sense of rhythm. Little was said of Epiphany or Pentecost or the Ascension; one Sunday was much like the next.

It was not until I was a graduate student in the history of Christianity that I began to learn about the riches of the church year. Life is never lived in a straight line; we know all too well about ups and downs. The ancient Church in its wisdom decreed that the Christian year, too, would have its rhythms: time of joy and celebration, of discipline and penitence; time to be outrageously happy and time to be suitably gloomy. There would be periods of consumption and periods of abstinence. To every thing, as Ecclesiastes says, there is a season.

We can see that so plainly this week. Today, we mark the end of Carnival, historically, the last chance to party for months–thus the extravagant use of eggs, fats, King’s cake, and extra chocolate chips in our pancakes. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet. Tomorrow marks the beginning of Lent, that seven-week period of preparation and repentance, the time which the Church used to ready new Christians for baptism and penitent sinners to be readmitted to the fold. And it begins with the shock of Ash Wednesday.

In a world which prizes self-affirmation, confidence, and pride, Ash Wednesday comes as a slap in the face, a bracing cold shower of reality. Inescapably, we are told of our lingering weaknesses, faults, and helplessness. We are, apparently, not such big shots after all. On this night, our mortality is literally rubbed in our faces. The branches which have been saved from last year’s Palm Sunday service, the ones waved so joyously by our children as they paraded around the church, have been burnt and a nasty paste made of them. We listen to the prayer:

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.  

We kneel before our pastor and those hands which have, on other days, fed us the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper now smear a rough cross on our foreheads with the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

This beautiful and humbling ritual is perhaps the clearest statement that we will ever hear about our status as temporary. Humans are such transient and fragile beings, so unnecessary to the functioning of the universe. Our presence is precarious. We will search in vain for any guarantees of our continued health, future success, or, even, the promise of tomorrow.

Fortunately, we have a God who loves us and, for some divine mystery, values our presence. Let us then use these next 40 days to learn to lean on the One who keeps us around and prepare for the majesty, terror, and mystery of Easter Week.

Each week, I’ll be sharing a reflection on Lent, as we walk toward the cross. It’s a season that resonated so profoundly when I was confronted with my finitude. There’s something about Lent that makes me feel like I’m not the only one on the losing team. So may we learn to stare down the abyss together. And in the meantime, let’s enjoy some pancakes.

  • Such a beautiful post and it resonates in my life , shared with my granddaughter and daughter. Together we face cancer with my granddaughter and are thankful for God’s grace. As we prepare for Lent , we are reminded of the fragility of life.

  • Thank you. Listening to your voice and remembering your story awakens in me a more real understanding of Lent and ashes and how we all belong to this great God, One who loves us inspite of our screw ups and sustains us each day, step by step. Blessings on you and yours as you eat pancakes.

  • In 1987 when I asked God “when will my life return to normal” and He responded “THIS IS NORMAL” and then very softly “what you had before was a gift” I learned to live with my spouse’s breast cancer and take joy from our 3 children. She was welcomed by God in 1994. Today as I sit beside my present spouse as she recovers from the gift of a double lung transplant, I am grateful for God’s blessings and very aware of our mortality.

  • The dichotomy is so interesting. That we need both. One to have the other.
    I would love to hear your thoughts one day on how you have kept your faith in God. Not because of all you’ve been through, but when science and other arguments constantly question his existence. By the way I grew up also in a Mennonite conservative evangelical background. And have had and continue to have a lot of very difficult painful experiences. But that’s not why I question there is a God. Sometimes I really long for and wish to have the blind trusting faith of my childhood and much of my adulthood back. God seems very far away if he does exist. And if he does, how can he/she really have any impact on the minutia of life. Be so all knowing. Thoughts?

  • I don’t have the rich traditions that you so eloquently, and amusingly, share in this post. I wasn’t raised a Christian. Once I discovered faith, I chose to attend a non-denominational church. Non-denominational churches are great for people like me, who don’t feel like we quite “fit” into a more traditional church setting. Yet listening to your words, thinking of these important aspects of the faith, makes me question if I’m missing something richer this season. Thus, I look forward to your future posts. Thank you!

  • If I remember rightly, one of the ancient rabbis said you should carry two stones in your robe, one to remind you that you are only dust and ashes, the other to remind you that you are made in God’s image. (He may not have said EXACTLY that!)

  • I truly look forward to your weekly Lenten reflections Kate. First stumbled upon your work the same time my cancer was diagnosed. Reading your reflections and listening to the interviews has been very helpful. Starting six weeks of daily radiation this morning. “Acceptance is the answer….”.

  • I appreciate this moving introduction to Ash Wednesday and Lent. Let us, indeed, learn to stare down the abyss together.

  • Lovely, thought post, Kate. I think you’ve caught what we see as a dichotomy in the mystery, the horror side by side with the holy. But it’s a dichotomy I think we need, a chiaroscuro in which the light is defined by the shade.
    And one day, we well be able to fully behold the Light.
    Your post inspired a sonnet; I hope you like it.
    Now begins the Lenten season,
    but I need not comply;
    they say I have sufficient reason
    for I am going to die.
    “Your sacrifice is cancer’s toll,
    no need to give up more!”
    But you don’t know my warrior soul,
    and I’m not yet on the floor.
    Sacrifice will burn the dross
    and purify the heart
    to fully, now, embrace the Cross,
    and know my Saviour’s part.
    I’m Via Dolorosa-bound,
    honoured steps on hallowed ground.

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