On the calendar of Western Rite Orthodox Christians (who probably number a few thousand people within the canonical Orthodox Church, out of a couple hundred million or so, which is why they are unknown to most Orthodox Christians), today is Ash Wednesday. So yesterday was their Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday (in French, Mardi Gras). And of course, these days were last week for Roman Catholics and the Protestants who observe such days.
Here in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, that Tuesday is also known as “Fastnacht Day.” Locally, that’s understood as being the day when you can get fastnachts (pictured above), a type of pastry that reminds one of doughnuts. In other places, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is a day for pączki, a Polish equivalent (though usually including filling, unlike fastnachts), and pancakes are traditional in some cultures. No doubt there are various other pastries and doughy things made with eggs, butter and lard in other cultures, too, all appointed to be eaten on Shrove Tuesday.
When I first learned about fastnachts, being someone who likes sweets (my waistline tells me that it’s too much), I had to try one. It was good, though it didn’t strike me as particularly more special than other pastries. Still, I liked it.
Being someone who dabbles in languages (and I must emphasize it is merely dabbling and not much actual effort), the name is what interested me the most. It is of course German—the Lehigh Valley was settled initially mainly by Germans, including many of what are known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. And it translates into English neatly as “Fast Night” or “Fast’s Eve.” So the term actually has nothing to do with pastry but is rather a word for the day before Ash Wednesday, when the fast of Western Christians for Lent begins.
Well, if we are honest, we might say “began” instead of “begins.” Ash Wednesday is of course a day of fasting and abstinence for many Western Christians (especially Roman Catholics), but the Thursday following it has no restrictions at all, and it’s basically just Fridays in Lent that have some kind of restrictions to them (no meat). But even if one followed these prescriptions exactly, having pastries on Shrove Tuesday still doesn’t make any sense.
Historically, the point in these pastries was not really to celebrate anything in particular, but rather to use up various ingredients that were still in the home, because they would be abstained from for the next several weeks. But the current fast of pious Roman Catholics makes these pastries basically irrelevant, because they’re never asked to abstain from butter, eggs, etc. And most other Christians practice no fasting or abstinence at all, except perhaps only rarely.
And so most of the people rushing to the bakeries in the Lehigh Valley to get their fastnachts on this one day have no intention of fasting at all on the next day. So they’re literally buying a pastry whose name means “Fast’s Eve,” but no one’s expecting them to fast from the things in that pastry.
In centuries past, most Christians passed Lent more like the Orthodox still do today, fasting not only from meat but also from fish, eggs and dairy. So you can see now why you’d want to get rid of all that stuff that went into your Shrove Tuesday goodies. Most Orthodox (i.e., those who aren’t Western Rite) don’t have Ash Wednesday, but rather Cheesefare Sunday (Lent starts on a Monday for us), but the same kinds of mechanisms are in place.
I mention all this not as some sort of bland criticism of Western Christian practices, though I know some pious Catholics who do indeed fast from those things (though their church does not expect them to) and lament the lack of such fasting in their own church. One Catholic professor I know points to the almost complete absence of asceticism in modern American Catholicism as a key issue in his church’s liturgical and aesthetic woes.
Rather, I mention this because I think that these doughnuts and pancakes, etc., are actually an opportunity to witness to the Gospel. And for those of us living in the land of fastnachts (which overlaps somewhat with what is known among some of my friends friends as the “Pierogi Belt”), we have a particular opportunity because the very name of the pastry is an introduction to the faith that underlies its purpose.
Great Lent is a gift originally given to catechumens to help them in their transition toward baptism, and so they would fast, just as the Apostle Paul did, in preparation for the mystery. Eventually, the Church came to see Lent as something for everyone, preparing not just catechumens for baptism but all Christians for Pascha (Easter). And so we fast. It is not something to be proud of or to hold up as some kind of moral law, but it is something that through many centuries of experience the Church knows helps in the struggle for holiness and beauty.
That what you eat or do not eat should have something to do with your spiritual life is an insight that Orthodoxy has maintained almost entirely on its own among Christians. We’re not necessarily very good at it, but we do still expect it. More robust fasting during Lent doesn’t have to remain some kind of historical oddity, either, as though Christians in centuries past thought this was a good idea, but now we know better. People are still people.
This insight into what it means to be human is something that I think not only can intrigue those who give a few minutes to consider it but can actually be a doorway into a profound embrace of the whole person by Christ—body and soul. For just as Christ is incarnate as a flesh and blood man, His human nature united forever to His divine nature, we human persons also can by grace unite our flesh and blood to Him Who is divine.
Everything can bring us to Christ. Even doughnuts.