Monday, 20 February 2012

Happy Pancake Day!

Some people call today “Fat Tuesday”, an English translation of the exotic sounding French, “Mardi Gras”. In Christian tradition, this is the designated day for ridding the kitchen of all fat, maybe by frying up some pancakes, before Lent, the period of abstemious self-denial. Another nickname for today, and some days preceding, is, of course “Carnival” from the Latin/Italian words, carne levare, meaning to get rid of meat or flesh. This day is the last chance to celebrate and feast by using up the foods that aren't allowed in Lent. It's also a day of penitence, to clean the soul, before Lent begins.
It’s not surprising to see which part of this ancient sacred tradition is the current favourite, especially in New Orleans.

At some point, years ago, I learned that what I thought was a minor Canadian tradition called “Pancake Tuesday” had begun as a Christian Holy Day in medieval Europe. The oldest name for this day is “Shrove Tuesday”. To “shrive” someone, means, in old English, to listen to their acknowledgement of their selfish thoughts and actions, their pride. It includes assuring them of God's forgiveness, and giving them appropriate spiritual advice. The term survives today in ordinary usage in the expression "short shrift". To give someone short shrift is to pay very little attention to their excuses or problems. The longer expression is, "to give him short shrift and a long rope," which formerly meant to hang a criminal with a minimum of delay.

A BBC website offers this quote from one thousand years ago in a document titled Anglo Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes.
"In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him."

Even after joining an Anglican church and discovering the richness of the traditional church year with its unique seasons, I didn’t give much attention to Shrove Tuesday. Because it’s usually acknowledged in churches only with sociable pancake suppers, the spiritual focus of the season really starts for most of us the next day, Ash Wednesday.

This year is different for me. A cool website link took me to

They suggested making a Mardi Gras Branch for Shrove Tuesday. Although this was recommended as an activity for children, I leapt at the idea. 
I cut a few branches from my forsythia bush in the back yard.  After arranging them in a water-filled vase, I had fun making the dull brown stalks gaudy. They now hold fuzzy purple corkscrews, ripped orange tissue paper feathers, and strings of shiny gold beads left over from a parade. I usually bring forsythia inside to enjoy the yellow blooms a couple of weeks before they blossom in the Spring, but never in February; decorating them for Shrove Tuesday is new. 
My raggedy bouquet of childish, bright colours is cheering me on now from my living room mantle. It makes me smile.

Soon I’ll be substituting a more somber and restrained set of Lenten icons: a huge stone, some crosses, and the wine glass and loaf of Christ’s last supper. But for now, while eating pancakes and considering forty days of specific self-denial, my Mardi Gras Branch is a perfect symbol of life’s strange combination of grace and grief. It’s a vivid metaphor; life’s dead branches can be enlivened by adding bits of love’s beauty day by day, as best we can. Even better, after the waiting, miraculous new life will begin, with fresh green leaves and sunny yellow flowers.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Happy Valentine's Day!

In the film The Fisher King, there is a short scene between a romantic couple. The woman has been frustrated by her partner’s bad behaviour and eventually he realizes that he was wrong. Instead of apologizing and making some changes, however, he arrives with a big bouquet of roses. When he presents the gorgeous flowers, expecting an easy reconciliation with her, she tears them to shreds before throwing them right back at him. The slapstick surprise is funny, but the viewer feels like weeping at how romantic trappings miss the mark of real love.

Valentine’s Day is the day for celebrating love, real love. 
It is lamentably true that in February some merchants flood their stores with red and pink junk on its way to the landfill, and advertisers desperately try to make couples buy extravagant gifts, but they’re not the boss of us! We have the choice, as we do at Christmas, and Easter, of scoffing at the holiday's commercialism, or of filling it with joyful meaning. 

Today we can find special ways to show how grateful we are for our life partners and our families.Today we have an excuse for surprising a neighbour with some spicy red cinnamon hearts, or for dropping off a friend’s favourite flowering bulb. Search engines make it easy to find pertinent quotes and poems for a home-made card. Who wouldn’t be cheered by an appreciative Valentine from a customer or a colleague?
There are so many who feel uncared for on this day, because they wish they were swooning over a lover who strews red petals along a path to the bedroom. But romance has little to do with real love. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know that flowers fade fast. Kindness is more likely to have a lasting impact.

The history of St. Valentine’s identity is vague, but whoever he was, the root of his name is helpful when we think about real love. The Latin word, valens, means “worthy, strong, powerful”. Real love isn’t pastel pink and self-indulgent. It is powerfully healing.
Think of a firefighter’s risky love for a stranger trapped by smoke. Think of the parents who stick with tiresome jobs in order to provide for their children. Think of the way an elderly couple support each other as their limitations increase. Think of that friend who babysits your kids. Think about why you make soup and take it to your ailing father. These are strong and worthy acts of real love.

St. Valentine’s famous act of love certainly had nothing to do with romance. Valentine demonstrated his powerful love for God by refusing to worship the Roman Emperor as divine. Valentine was executed for his Christian faith. 
Why would he pay such a price? 
Like other martyrs, he chose to die rather than renounce God, because he was a profoundly grateful recipient of God's love.  He believed Jesus’ astonishing message that God loves us before we ever love God.  Indeed, God’s love for humanity is a bit like the unsentimental love of a rescuing firefighter or a hard-working parent. Whether we love God back, or not, God loves us. We aren't uncared for, today or any other day.

Share the love. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Five Year Old Moves Out

Ooh, it was a war in Etobicoke that Friday morning. 
Mommy had said “No.” 
Five year old son tried all of the usual arguments, yelling and crying, but Mommy would not see reason.
Finally FYO had had it. He was sick of being ordered around. He was fed up with these two resident goons who bullied him just because he was too small to defeat them.
“I’m leaving. I’m not going to live here any more. I’m going to live at Grandy and Grandad’s house”
His mother told him how sad she would be without him and how much she would miss him. With teary eyes and trembling lip he held his ground. Separation had become necessary and they would all just have to live with his decision, no matter how painful.

Outside he went, wearing his winter jacket but sockless in his running shoes.
A free spirit, he packed nothing for his journey. However, he did take along his little sister who rode cheerfully behind him in the wagon.
FYO knew that Mommy would have to follow them to keep them safe on the trek, but as long as she lagged an appropriate distance behind the wagon, he could deal.
His grandparents’ house was half a mile away, a route of several streets and corner turns, but he had no problem leading the way. He dragged the wagon and his sister for the entire fifteen minutes, up and down hills, determined in his quest for a more congenial home life. 

When they got to Grandy and Grandad’s his mother stopped at the end of the driveway to watch what he would do.
FYO, always sweet with his sister, lifted her out of the wagon and then walked away from them both toward the house. When he reached the porch he turned to look at Mommy. He gave a little goodbye wave and watched her wave in return.
Resolutely, he turned his back and knocked.

The unknowing grandparents opened their front door with questioning faces.
“Oh, what a nice surprise! We didn’t know who it was knocking. 
Come on in, Sweetheart!”
They noticed no sign of distress on his dear little face and assumed that he and his mom and sister were just dropping by. 
His mother stepped inside for a minute to check with her parents.  

FYO to grandparents: “I’m staying here.”
Grandy: “Oh?”
FYO: “For a long time.”
Grandy: “Oh?”
FYO: “For a day….. or two.”
Mommy: “FYO has decided he’s moving in with you”.

After his mother and sister left, he happily played pick-up sticks, and assembled puzzles with his grandparents. He made no mention of his early morning decision and his grandparents weren’t crazy enough to jog his memory. At lunchtime he ate his favourite pre-kindergarten grilled cheese sandwich, and without protest, got his outdoor clothes back on and said goodbye to Grandy.
His mother had promised to bring to the school his backpack with socks and snack inside, so Grandad drove him straight to kindergarten. After school, his mother picked him up as usual  and FYO slept the night in his own bed. 
That was the end of that. 

The best love is the kind where, when you run away mad, you are always welcome to come back.

(for a similar story, see the book of Luke, Chapter 15, in the Bible