A few years back, the group that had “always” coordinated the annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper at Trinity Church told me, in no uncertain terms that they were tired of spending the Tuesday evening before Ash Wednesday up to their elbows in pancake batter, sticky syrup and the greasy remains of sausage. They were ready to take a permanent break. After a brief search around for other groups to host the event in the first group’s stead, none came forward. It seems plenty of folks are in favor of eating pancakes, but preparing them and cleaning up after hungry hoards is another matter entirely.
It’s been four years since the pancake supper went down into the dust of memory. A few people voiced disappointment the first year we were pancake-less, but there has been no widespread outcry for the reviving of the event since that time. Because I am an Episcopalian, the thought of not having an evening of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday seemed somehow un-Anglican at the time, never mind the fact that very few folks in 21st century Wisconsin know (or care) about what it means to be “shriven.” Over the years, though, I’ve learned that having a quieter Shrove Tuesday provides me better preparation for the labors of Ash Wednesday than carbo-loading ever did.
I am neither advocating for the elimination of pancake suppers nationwide nor am I hoping that a parishioner will read this post and suddenly feel moved to “take up the batter and butter” to restart this custom at the parish I serve. Perhaps one day the custom will return to this the corner in Wauwatosa. Perhaps it never will. Local communities of faith develop their own particular rhythms with regards to such things. Customs are just that, customs. They are not central to the life of faith, even if they might be fun and/or meaningful to the faithful. For this season in the life of Trinity Church we have taken a fast from pancakes, syrup and sausage.
During these past four years, though, we’ve actually seen a small increase in the number of folks showing up for Ash Wednesday liturgies. Primarily, this uptick in attendance is due to the addition of a fairly informal (and lots more “active”) Ash Wednesday liturgy geared toward families with younger children two years ago. Tomorrow, there will be four Ash Wednesday liturgies at Trinity — 7 a.m., noon, 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. I know from talking with parishioners here that many take their Lenten commitments seriously. I know they view this season as an opportunity to renew their spiritual lives and refocus their attention on their relationships with God, family and neighbors. This is a good and holy thing.
Discontinuing the pancake supper and beginning an additional Ash Wednesday liturgy represent two sorts of change. Sometimes it’s hard for me to figure out which takes more energy in the life of a parish — to stop something that’s been around for generations or to start something that’s not been done before now. That’s the same sort of question the Church puts before us when it calls us to the keeping of a holy Lent. We are asked to stop some things and we are asked to start some things. Both of those admonitions can be difficult to undertake given the fullness of schedules and the frenzied pace at which many of us seem to live.
Perhaps the best way we can fully embrace the changes Lent calls us toward is to simply be gentle with ourselves. Maybe we could take the time to remember we don’t have to make the season into some sort of “spiritualized” self-improvement project. We can let go of our desire to be perfect. We can breathe when we fail at our plans and projects. We can embrace the realization that God’s love embraces us at all times and in all places — even if we don’t stuff our faces with pancakes and even if, because of the pace of our lives, we can’t manage to find the time to have our foreheads smudged with ashes inside the walls of a church building.
What if simply remembering that Lent is beginning is enough to begin the journey toward the the wholeness of life that God wills for each of us?
Even a little change is a change isn’t it?