Shrove Tuesday 2014: Dancing on the Edge of the Desert

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder-_The_Fight_between_Carnival_and_Lent_detail_3The wilderness is waiting.

We know this, of course, because Lent is all about the wilderness, forty days of reflection and sacrifice and waiting for the day when the barren places explode with life. We’re not quite in that period of expectation and self-examination, not yet; first we have to prepare for it. That leads us to the big question of Shrove Tuesday – what are you giving up for Lent? Traditionally people have fasted, and that’s a great disciple, but the weak part of me, the part that loves burgers and Ben and Jerry comforts itself with the idea that this act of sacrifice can extend beyond our stomachs. Giving something up creates a space, a vacuum that demands to be filled; perhaps a better Lenten question is “What are you taking up?”

That question has weight that may be obscured by our pancakes. Because if we’re going to observe Lent, we’re simultaneously following Jesus towards the desert and towards the cross. That should be a little intimidating; this could be a hard journey ahead of us.

So while I fully endorse eating as many pancakes as possible, I wonder if the carnivals celebrated today throughout the world have more of a sense of the occasion: this is your last chance to party for a while because there aren’t many laughs to be had on the road to Calvary. Maybe that’s why Carnival is often disruptive, with masquerades and satire; for a few days at least, the world turns upside down and everybody dances.

It seems crazy to dance into the desert. But in the run-up to Easter, we’re invited to encounter a topsy-turvey outworking of faith; we remember Jesus showing strength as he starves in the wilderness, but also scared and sweating blood after his people’s great celebration. The social order is shattered; the king kneels and washes the feet of his followers and death is defeated through death on a cross. If a new kingdom is inaugurated by the Resurrection, Lent is our opportunity to prepare for that.

So we stand in the borderlands, looking out across the waste ground.

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