“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
– Matthew 6:16-18
Sandwiched in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount is an admonishment by Jesus regarding fasting. Today is Fat Tuesday with tomorrow being Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday marks the start of fasting for many people, but I have problems with the whole thing. It has been a culture shock for me.
A lot of denominations recognize Ash Wednesday, not from the tradition of placing an ash cross on the forehead of the participants, but as the first day of Lent. While many denominations recognize the Lenten season, it is more of a preparation for Holy Week, rather than a time for fasting.
I grew up in the South. If anyone mentioned fasting during Lent, it was to explain what Fat Tuesday was all about in New Orleans and the other heavy Catholic areas along the Gulf Coast. Mobile, AL claims the first Mardi Gras with New Orleans not far behind. Of course, these celebrations were carry-overs from European celebrations. These days, there are many parades and excuses for partying all along the Gulf Coast. Fat Tuesday is the last day before Lent starts. Upon Lent starting, you have to give up something. Fat Tuesday is the day to cram as much as you can of what you are giving up for it to last six weeks of fasting. It is either that or a trumped-up excuse for blind madness and partying. For many, fasting on Ash Wednesday itself is a breeze. If they wake up at all, they have such a hang-over that the only thing they can hold down is their favorite hang-over remedy. Hopefully the remedy is not what they had decided to give up for their Lenten fast.
As for the photograph, the hat, a straw fedora, and the necktie, purchased by my sons as a gift, were both New Orleans purchases. The tie has the traditional purple, gold, and green colors of New Orleans Mardi Gras. It is the only real ‘party tie’ that I own. I wore it to church this past Sunday and had to admit that I do not party. It’s a tie with symbols of everything that I am not, but it is the closest that I have been to participating in Fat Tuesday. Okay, exceptions to the last statement would be the musical notes representing some of the best Jazz in the world and I love crawfish. At least I think that the red lobster-like drawings are supposed to be crawfish.
My wife was a disgruntled and questioning Catholic when we married. She quickly joined the Presbyterian church. For our first Lenten season together, she gave up fasting. She loved eating fish on Fridays, but that was all year long.
When I was in Germany, I was attacked on the Monday before Fat Tuesday, a few weeks after moving to the best assignment that I ever had in the Army. I had just started working at the Facilities Engineer (FE) as the temporary FE, until they could hire a civilian. It was a four-month assignment that lasted for a year and a half. That Monday, the typing pool ran into my office. Half the women tied me down while the other half painted my face in freakish clown make-up. They were in costume, as well as half the other office workers. Just as they finished, and before I could find a mirror, the colonel, my brigade commander and boss’ boss as community commander, called me into a meeting. “Do not pass ‘go,’ Lieutenant. Get here on the double.” His office was a quarter mile away. I grabbed my hat and went running, completely forgetting the attack from the typing pool, and never having seen what they really did to me. As I knocked on his office door, the door was opened by his executive office, a Lt. Colonel, he and the colonel burst out laughing. His intent for the impromptu visit was that he wanted to make sure that I was ‘fitting in’ and an admonishment that I should take the job seriously. Between bouts of doubling over laughing, he admitted that it looked like I was fitting in, but taking things seriously would have to wait until I washed my face. This was my first experience with Fat Tuesday. The make-up attack was on Monday, because all my civilian employees, all 200+ of them, had Fat Tuesday off to party all day, a German holiday, not an American holiday.
I had no further experience with Fat Tuesday until I came to the greater Pittsburgh area. Pittsburgh is an odd blend of mostly Catholics and Presbyterians. Every small community has a Catholic church and at least one to five Presbyterian churches. Our little town used to have five Presbyterian churches, but it is down to three, one barely hanging on. We drive to the next biggest town to go to church. But the key here is that many of the Presbyterians had once been Catholics, many wanting to bring with them all the Catholic traditions, except for the ones that caused them to leave the Catholic church.
During my first Lenten season in the area, I noticed that all the fast food places suddenly had fish sandwiches. Every church had a fish fry at least once, but some had Friday fish fries every week during Lent. Every VFD (volunteer fire dept.) joined the bandwagon with major money earning projects with well-advertised fish fries. One of my friends at work said that he’d worked at a fast food place before getting a job at the engineering company. He went to the drive-thru window and ordered a burger. The voice said, “You’ll get a fish sandwich. It’s Lent.” A fight ensued. He was a shift manager, and the lady who refused to let him have a burger worked for him on most days. What I got out of Lent in my new home was that it starts fights, and everyone wants to make money off someone else’s religious practices.
That being said, the Scripture above does not say to “not fast,” just do it quietly. Don’t draw attention. Something that is next to impossible during the fasting season. The idea of ashes on the forehead screams of “Look at me! I am more holy than you are!” This is exactly what Jesus is saying not to do. Then you have the odd encounters on Ash Wednesday at work with the boss that cusses like a sailor showing up to work with an Ash Cross on his forehead. It makes you go “Hmmm?”
Then there are the Catholics that lecture the Presbyterians that their fish dinner on Ash Wednesday, followed by a worship service, HAS to be moved to Tuesday, because lavish church meals are not allowed during Lent. It is a simple fish dinner. It makes you go “Hmmm?”
But the whole idea of Fat Tuesday completely boggles my mind. It is as if you are saying, “God, I am about to show you how much I love you starting Wednesday, but for a couple of days, I’m going to do everything that you say NOT to do, so I can get it out of my system. That’s the best idea to show my love for you that I have ever done! Isn’t it?” Okay, you do every rotten thing in the book for two days, then you give up drinking Coca-Cola by switching to Pepsi Cola for six weeks. It makes you go “Hmmm?”
No, I am not partying on Fat Tuesday. I will go to the church dinner on Ash Wednesday and eat fish. My wife ordered one dinner with baked and the other with fried. Since she can’t eat much, I’ll have half of one and all of the other. I will continue my 24/7/365 dedication to be a little more like Jesus every day as if Lent did not even happen. (I have been at it for a long time. In this area of my life, I guess I’m a slow learner, but my eyes are on the prize.) And when they start painting ashes on a bunch of Presbyterians, we’ll go home. It is optional, but if I fast or if I do not fast, I will take my Savior’s advice. Neither you, nor anyone who sees me on the street, will know about it.
Happy Lenten season to all, whether fasting or not. Remember that Jesus sacrificed for you and me by dying on the cross. He also rose from the dead on that first Easter morning. If sacrificing something by fasting helps you remember those two vital facts, knock yourself out. I will be praying for you whether you do something special or not.