“What’s the difference between a flute and a stick in the mud?” our priest asked on Sunday. He then went on, “The stick in the mud is full of itself. The flute has been emptied of itself so it can make music.” That’s a good image for Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.
The origins of Fat Tuesday have everything to do with what happens on day after. Christians around the world celebrate “Ash Wednesday” which kicks off the 40 days before Easter (what we call “Lent”). Traditionally Lent is a season of fasting (giving up food or luxuries or vices) and repentance (which means “to re-think” things), and we put ashes on our heads made from palm branches from the previous Easter season as a sign of our mortality (i.e. “from dust we came and to dust we shall return”).
So before the fasting there was feasting. Ages ago, folks would spend Tuesday eating up all the grub (and drinks) that would go bad during the season of fasting, especially in the days before refrigeration.
But the question surfaces, what relevance does any of that have for us?
Our priest did an incredible job reminding us that in a world where many of us are “full of ourselves” we need to be emptied of ourselves – so that our lives can make better music.
All the major world religions have an element of self-denial at their core. Jews have Yom Kippur. Muslims have Ramadan. Christians have Lent.
In a world filled with clutter, noise, and hustle, Lent is a good excuse to step back and rethink how we think and live. In a world of instant gratification, it’s a chance to practice delayed gratification – to fast -- so that we can truly appreciate the blessings we have. In a world where virtual friends are replacing real ones, it is an invitation to turn off TV and computer screens so we can spend time with real people again.
It’s an opportunity to give up something that is sucking the life out of us so that we can be filled with God, with life, with love again.
So consider taking the invitation this Lent to “repent” – to rethink how we think and live. One friend told me his Lenten commitment was not to spend a single dollar these 40 days. Another woman said she was giving up gasoline, only driving one day a week. Others of us may take up smaller commitments – giving up sweets, alcohol, or meat.
One of my friends who talks a lot decided to spend time in disciplined silence. Another friend of mine, who is a hermit, committed to get out a little more and be social. So there isn’t an anecdote, but there is an invitation -- an excuse – to try something new. Some folks may choose to not only give up something, but to take on something new – to exercise, read, learn a new craft, or pray. So whether it is giving up an old bad habit or taking on a new holy habit… May we each use this Lenten season as an excuse to do something that empties us of ourselves so that our lives make better music.
Shane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian  and a founding partner of The Simple Way  community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with Chris Haw, of Jesus for President .