We burned up some fat last night. Actually, we did not exactly burn it up. We fried batter in it, made pancakes with it, and then ate the result. We consumed it, lavishly and wildly. Pancake suppers, with lively children of all ages, with beads and costumes and craziness, are one of the highlights of fat parish life. “Mardi Gras” means Fat Tuesday, and we were phat last night.
A few hours after our pancake supper, we went to church, for Ash Wednesday. There, of course, the mood changed. The priest said, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination…”
“I invite you to self examination,” the priest said. Yes, I know there were other Lenten disciplines mentioned, but “self-examination” may actually be one the hardest. Ever since our weekly tests of school days, few of us enjoy examinations. To take an exam is to submit ourselves to some test. A true test is rarely easy; when one “tests” metal, one refines it and burns off the impurities. It can be a fiery and dangerous process, like burning off fat.
A further etymology reveals that the word “examine” evolved from the same root as the word “to exact,” which means “to drive out.” Again, “to exact” something is to drive out impurities, to refine. The season of Lent, then, is said to be a season of examination, a season of driving something out, a process which can be painful. We rarely submit ourselves to a voluntary examination.
But the Church asks us to do something even harder. It is not merely “examination” that we are asked to observe, but “self-examination.” Who in the world has the power to test oneself, to voluntarily drive out elements from one’s own character or set of habits?
It’s not just the willpower of self-examination that I lack. It is the actual ability. Consider self-examination of our own bodies. Do you realize how much of our bodies we cannot actually see?
We cannot see our backs, of course. And more importantly, we cannot see our heads, except during those fleeting moments in a mirror a few times a day. We cannot actually see how our eyes and facial muscles reveal our souls.
Thus, a full self-examination of our bodies is close to impossible. The same impossibility probably exists for our souls. A full self-examination of our souls is close to impossible. I, for one, will need help even in performing self-examination. I will need the perspective and wisdom of others.
Without others, I am like one of church children who waltzes into the parish hall with his name proudly scrawled on his name tag, but with the tag upside down on his shirt. He can read it fine, but no one else can. (Actually, some adults do this on occasion, too.) Self-examination is not complete and accurate, unless other people can read me, too. Self-examination is not complete and accurate unless I am reading what other people are saying, too. In short, we need other people in order to perform self-examination.
I was glad to have lots of others around me in the parish hall on Fat Tuesday, when we were burning up fat. We joked and sang and made merry. In doing so, we were burning off some of those outer layers, some of that fat, some of that other stuff which was not really us. Revelling, we were also revealing our inner selves.
So, Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday belong together. The discipline of self-examination is a discipline of burning off that which is does not need to be a part of us. We cannot perform the complete exam, the complete test, alone; so we gather in community on both days. We start on Fat Tuesday; but the fat on Fat Tuesday becomes the ashes on Ash Wednesday. For the next forty days, we might find a way to repeat the process daily. Self-examination, and the burning off of fat, might lead to new life, and Easter self-revelation!