09 February 2008

fastnachts and ashes

Evidently my attempt to start blogging regularly again is floundering. Some other years I've given up blogging during Lent. This year I've grown so detached from blogging that perhaps finding the leisure to blog a couple times a week should be a positive discipline I take up during the Lenten season.

This past Shrove Tuesday I found myself craving fastnachts, those wonderful, often square doughnuts Pennsylvania Germans use to celebrate the last day before Lent, sometimes sold in rural Pennsylvania at firehalls and the like as a fundraiser. Even though the German Reformed of Pennsylvania didn't observe Lent as an ecclesiastical event until the latter part of the 19th century (unlike their Lutheran neighbors), Lent was still often part of customs in the home. And among those customs - shared with the Lutherans - were the yummy, sugary, doughy, fatty fastnacht, a final indulgence before Lenten observances.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find any fastnachts here in the city - though I didn't look very hard. I settled for a generous plate of pancakes instead, just as common among many traditions and probably not so bad for one's health.

Easter is early this year - 23 March, almost as early as it can be, since it always falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox on 21 March. That means Easter can't be any earlier than 22 March.

With Easter this early, Ash Wednesday was early as well, catching many of my students off guard as they noticed their ash-marked classmates, leading them to scramble to find out when campus ministry was offering prayer and imposition of ashes. Living in an urban area, largely Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant, the sight of ash-marked foreheads as Lent commences is a normal part of the landscape.

There's something encouraging and sobering to be surrounded by Christian people, marked together as creatures of dust, laboring together under a sign of penitence and of our own mortality. Since I'm teaching class on Wednesday nights this semester, I wasn't able to attend our parish's Ash Wednesday service, but I did join my students at midday over at our campus chapel.

In his homily, the campus minister told us of a time when, ministering at an elementary school, he burned the palms in front of the children on a smoking charcoal grill, reducing them to glowing embers - just to illustrate where the ashes came from and to indicate our mortality and frailty before a God of consuming fire. As he later began to distribute the ashes, marking the forehead of each child beginning with the youngest, the first Kindergarten student in line looked up at him with fear in his wide eyes, but standing his ground.

"What's wrong?" the pastor asked, "Are you not feeling well?"

"I'm okay, Father," the child replied, "I'm just a bit scared. How hot are the ashes," he asked, "and will they burn me much?" not realizing the ashes in the cup had been prepared separately from the ones still smoldering on the fire.

The amazing thing, the minister pointed out, is that the child hadn't run away, but was ready to take up his ash-marked identity, even if it hurt or burnt.

How ready are we to live out our identity in Jesus Christ, trusting that his grace is enough to sustain us, even when we face situations where following him is uncomfortable or perhaps painful? Do we have that child-like trust that he knows what is best for us, however things might appear?