The day before Lent
Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday"), has become associated with excess--a last fling before the penitential season of Lent begins. In fact, the excesses of Shrove Tuesday reflect both practical and spiritual values that are important. In observant Jewish households, on the day before Passover begins the family cleans the house thoroughly and searches high and low for any leaven or any food that has leaven in it. This ritual cleansing is a preparation for redemption because redemption requires us to let go of the old life and embrace the new life which God offers us. Shrove Tuesday does exactly the same thing. There is a difference in that the Jewish custom is a preparation for the festival of Passover, whereas Shrove Tuesday is a preparation for a season of penitence, with the festival still many weeks away. Nevertheless, the Christian season of Lent is itself a season of new beginning, a time to embrace new life in a more extended way. And to do this properly, we must first of all set aside the old. We do that in several ways. First of all, there is food. Pancake suppers, as well as Mardi Gras feasts of rich food and drink are an opportunity to use up the last of the winter supplies of these things, which in earlier times would have been running low by now anyway. Orthodox Christians are far more ascetical in Lent when it comes to food than we in the West. Meat, dairy products, fish, olive oil, and wine are given up for all or at least part of Lent in the Orthodox churches. In the West, meat has generally been the primary target of those who fast, with an emphasis on major fasts on two days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and abstinence from meat on all Fridays. In fact, the tendency in the West has been to move further and further away from fixed rules and to emphasize the "spirit" of fasting and abstinence. Unfortunately, this has led many people either to trivialize the idea of fasting by translating it into the popular but often empty custom of "giving up" something or else to abandon the notion of fasting entirely. The challenge today is to recover a true spirit of fasting that is not necessarily based on hard and fast rules but that does make a genuine effort to set aside the old life in preparation for embracing redemption.
What one really needs to do in order to set aside the old life is something that rarely happens on Shrove Tuesday, in spite of the fact that it is the act from which the day gets its name. Ash Wednesday has become the day on which confession is emphasized liturgically. But historically it was on Shrove Tuesday that one was shriven ("absolved") so that one could begin Lent with a completely clean slate. Sin is the thing to which we are enslaved and which is at the center of lives that desperately crave and need redemption. The practical way to address that problem is not by eating all of the pancakes one can manage. Rather, we need to make a thorough self-examination, firmly resolve to renounce entirely the sinful ways and attitudes that separate us from God and from one another, and, if possible, confess our sins to a priest and receive the sacramental absolution which relieves us of the burden of sin which weights us down and hinders our progress towards God's redemption. We live in a culture of introspection and self-improvement and heartily endorse the sentiment that "confession is good for the soul." But we also place a high premium on independence and self-sufficiency, failing to realize that ultimately these things isolate us further from God and prevent us from taking hold of the new life that can only be received as a gift and can never be achieved by ourselves. The Mardi Gras custom of wearing masks and costumes which hide our true identity is, or should be, a preparation for the true meaning of the day, which is to strip off the masks we all wear--again, putting off the old life and opening ourselves to the new life of redemption.
Full Homely Divinity Home Page