February 21 2021

About Pancakes and Ashes: Lent 2021

The season of lent began last week, prefaced by Shrove Tuesday (did you eat your pancakes?), and followed by Ash Wednesday, when we confess our sins of commission or omission (did you sit in sackcloth and ashes?).

If we take down our encyclopedia, or open Wikipedia, we can find the following information on the kind of options for repentance, that have historically been available for the Christian penitent.

Penance or repentance can be performed in acts that a believer imposes on himself or herself, acts that are themselves called “penances.” Penitential activity is recorded as particularly common during the season of Lent and Easter Week. In some traditions Easter week, which commemorates the Passion of Jesus, may be marked by acts of penance that include self-flagellation, or even by copying Jesus’ sufferings by a kind of enactment of pseudo-crucifixion. Self-flagellation, and the wearing of a cilice or hair shirt, are referred to as mortification of the flesh. Other easier acts of self-discipline are used as tokens of repentance, for example, devoting time to prayer or reading of the Bible or other spiritual books. More familiar examples are fasting, continence, abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, chocolate &c.

Far be it from me to suggest Unitarians should consider adopting any of the above methods of penance, or indeed that anyone need go to such extremes. We may at times, however, feel the need of confession…

Shrove Tuesday is the traditional day to eat up all your perishable produce, in preparation for the austerity leading up to the major Christian feast of Easter. Ash Wednesday which followed begins a 40 day period (excluding Sundays) before Easter itself. On Ash Wednesday observing Christians will receive ashes on the forehead in the shape of the cross, – ashes created by burning the Palm Sunday crosses of last year.

The thinking is that ashes remind people of mortality, and so encourage repentance, and the restoration of a deeper relationship with the holy and the divine.

The principal practices of Lent remain fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Fasting is quite simply setting something aside in order to deepen our concentration on what is worthy. I personally have found this to be counterproductive, because what I am denying myself becomes the focus of my attention. You may have more success yourselves.

Lenten prayer is often about what sort of person you ought to be yourself, and about the health, well-being and wholeness of others. Prayer is a preparation and a statement of purpose and intent. The prayers of confession that we make on Ash Wednesday in particular, are intended to invoke regret and remorse for bad behaviour or thoughts, but of course are not productive unless we try for a degree of improvement.

So without doubt the least difficult and most effective Lenten practice we have mentioned is the third, almsgiving. It is a practice we often disassociate from Lent because we are confronted by the need to make charitable giving all year round. Rev Geoff Usher’s prayer captures the essence of the need for alms: “we receive much more than we deserve, we are given much more than we give, our reward is much greater than our merit… As we learn to  be grateful for the many blessings we share, may we learn also to share our blessings.”

To borrow an idea popularized by Leonard Cohen, Lent is the crack in the religious year, which, if we observe it with discipline, will admit the light which Easter brings. It admits the light by the preparation of Lent, and particularly of Ash Wednesday, by the awareness of our imperfections and flaws. This is why confession is important.

Allow me to explore an image with you.

In the landscape of the religious year, Ash Wednesday stands like an immense ruin. It is the embodiment of the Christian philosophy of “miserable sin”, in other words, the human condition as the church perceives it: “and there is no health in us.”

In the hymn “We believe in human kindness“ these original  lines occur:

“In the godlike wreck of nature
Sin doth in the sinner leave,
That we may regain the stature
We have lost – we do believe.”

Whenever I contemplate the season of Lent and Ash Wednesday in particular, poems like Shelley’s Ozymandias, or Rilke’s Torso of Apollo, come immediately to mind.

This is Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,-
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
(Note: In antiquity, Ozymandias was a Greek name for the
Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. Statue displayed in British Museum shown)

And similarly from the “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by  Rainer Maria Rilke. The poet had been to a museum and had seen there an ancient torso of the Greek god Apollo. He describes this massive fragment of a body, without arms, without legs, without a head, and yet he says there is still so much energy in this perfect fragment, that it bursts from the massive torso like light:

”We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, gleams in all its power…

“There is no part of this thing [he says]That does not look at you: you must change your life.”

These desolations, these ruins, are an emblematic  part of everyone’ s inner experience where the accumulated passions abide. We have all felt the most devastating disappointments and the wreckage of our hopes and dreams. There they stand, in the desert places of our consciousness. Ash Wednesday exists to enable us to address our condition, confess our wrongs, and move forward.

In religious terms, Ash Wednesday is high art, because , like the poems and the statues, it compels us to take a good hard look at ourselves and our terrible weaknesses; and it compels us in a like manner to “change our life”.

About as far distant from the frivolity and self-indulgence of Shrove Tuesday as it is possible to get, Ash Wednesday confronts us with ultimate questions. In the words of TS Eliot’s eponymous poem: “This is the time of tension, between dying and birth, the place of solitude…

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood…”

Shall we end with two contemporary poems on our theme?>

Madeleine L’Engle’s  “For Lent, 1966.”

It is my Lent to break my Lent,
To eat when I would fast,
To know when slender strength is spent,
Take shelter from the blast
When I would run with wind and rain,
To sleep when I would watch.
It is my Lent to smile at pain
But not ignore its touch.

It is my Lent to listen well
When I would be alone,
To talk when I would rather dwell
In silence, turn from none
Who call on me, to try to see
That what is truly meant
Is not my choice. If Christ’s I’d be
It’s thus I’ll keep my Lent.


And finally, from Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.



Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period