Originally published at Convivium on February 16, 2021.
On this day before Lent, Don Hutchinson counsels Convivium readers to prepare for the 40 days before Easter as a mix of self-denial and doing unto others as we would have them do for us.
Apart from hot pancakes for lunch, the day held no particular meaning for me.
It was a next-day Wednesday some year, perhaps even the same year, when I noticed my next-door neighbour had a smudge of something on his forehead after school. “Hey Mike, you’ve got some dirt on your forehead. You’ll want to wash it off before your mom sees it,” or words to that effect, opened for me a whole different understanding of why once each year we had pancakes for Tuesday lunch instead of Saturday breakfast.
Shrove Tuesday, as Mike called it, was the last day before Lent. Ash Wednesday was the first day of Lent. The pancake lunch was a moveable feast, determined by the date on which Easter fell. Fill up on the good stuff on Fat Tuesday (yet another name for this special day), followed by Lent; 40 days of fasting from fatty foods and engaging in personal introspection, remembering Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Jesus started his ministry following those 40 days, and Lent, I was told, was also a time to consider how one might do good for those in need.
The “dirt” on Mike’s forehead? His priest would save the palm leaves that littered the church following Palm Sunday services the year before, then burn them on Pancake Tuesday, mix them with a little oil to make them sticky, and place the sign of the cross on the foreheads of Catholics at Mass on Ash Wednesday. Wednesday Mass at Mike’s school included an ashen cross on his forehead for the rest of the day. His mother would be looking for it when he got home.
As a young adult, my formative Christian experience took place in The Salvation Army. We observed our own form of Lent. Instead of Lent, Salvationists call it Self-Denial. We identified something we really enjoyed, then fasted from it or paid a self-determined fine for it. For 40 days I gave up sweets and put the equivalent I would have spent on cookies, candies, and desserts in an envelope to support Home Missions – helping fund Salvation Army churches and ministries in Canadian communities that were not able to support them. In addition, my Self-Denial envelope acquired 25 cents for each half-hour of television I watched.
We too contemplated Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, with extra Scripture reading and prayer time. Self-Denial was a time for self-reflection, thinking about our excesses and the needs of others.
There are two different stories told about William Booth, co-founder of The Salvation Army along with his wife Catherine, sending a telegram containing the single word, Others.
One story suggests that General Booth, an aging invalid in 1910, was unable to attend The Salvation Army’s annual Christmas Day convention. On Christmas Eve it was suggested that in lieu of his traditional opening remarks a telegram be sent to be read to the gathered crowd. Telegrams were paid for by the word, not including the name of the sender. Mindful of the expense, the telegram read to gathered Salvationists that Christmas day said simply, “Others. Signed, General Booth.”
The second story suggests that in 1911 Booth sent a Christmas telegram to Salvation Army leaders around the world. Funds were short so he edited to one paragraph, then one sentence, and finally one word. Again, the telegram is said to have read, “Others. Signed, General Booth.” That would have been his last Christmas message. The General was, as Salvationists say, promoted to glory in August 1912.
Either story might be well met with an acknowledging nod of the head. The ministry of The Salvation Army was and remains synonymous with others.
Whether Catholic, Salvationist, Reformed, Pentecostal, or none-of-the-aforementioned, perhaps our pandemic Pancake Tuesday feasts of 2021 might be followed by 40 days of self-reflection, thinking of others, and doing something about it. In a world where self seems often the center of our thoughts, our service, and our purchases, thinking of and doing for others from now until Easter Sunday might be soul-replenishing.
It might even become an enduring habit.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31)