How many of you had pancakes for supper yesterday? According to Facebook status updates, a lot of my friends did. They all seemed to enjoy eating the pancakes, and the annual societal permission to have breakfast for supper, but I’m not sure that all of them really understand the reason for Pancake Tuesday, nor the significance of Ash Wednesday which is today.
Neither Pancake Tuesday nor Ash Wednesday is mentioned in the Bible. Ash Wednesday begins the period of Lent, which is the 40 days (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter. Lent was originally a time of fasting for the purpose prayer, self-examination and repentance. It is representative of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. (Luke 4:1-13) Pancake Tuesday started for practical reasons. If parishioners had to give up certain things for 40 days including, butter, milk and eggs, they would see to it that they didn’t go to waste. The making of pancakes would use those things up. Somehow something is lost these days when you make your pancakes by adding water to the powder from a box.
On Ash Wednesday, penitents in some faiths have a cross drawn with ash placed on their foreheads by the priest. The ashes are created by burning the palms from Palm Sunday of the previous year. All very symbolic, and based on the way that people expressed repentance and grief in the Bible. (II Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1, Job 42:5-6, Matthew 11:21) But like a lot of traditions, sometimes the symbolism stays even though the reasons for it have been lost.
The true spirit of humility that is supposed to be represented by fasting in sackcloth and ashes is well demonstrated by Daniel. (Daniel 9:3) Daniel prayed on behalf of Jerusalem for forgiveness of sins he did not commit, and for mercy from God towards the city. (Daniel 9:4-19) Daniel knew that the restoration of the city of Jerusalem depended solely on God’s grace and mercy, and not on anything that the people could do. Putting ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday also symbolizes this humility, but it means nothing if that humility is not truly in your heart.