Today is Shrove Tuesday – also known as Fat Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday, or Fasnacht. It is the last day of Mardi Gras celebrations around the world. It’s likely there are other names for this day I’m not familiar with, as well. In all cases, however, the event falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first Day of Lent.
“Shrove” is the past tense of the Old English word “Shrive” – a word that means to receive absolution of sins through confession. Thus Shrove Tuesday is historically the day when Christians would seek to be “shriven” in observance of the start of Lent (the six weeks leading up to the Easter celebration). Lent is traditionally a time of self-denial where renewed focus is placed on the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and repentance. In keeping with the reflective nature of the season, some churches even “put away” the use of the word Alleluia and veil the crosses of the church during Lent – a solemn reminder of spiritual exile and our need for Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
But back to Shrove Tuesday. With a season of self-denial approaching, it became customary over the ages not only to seek absolution, but also to spend one last day enjoying temporal pleasures before “giving them up” as a Lenten sacrifice. This gave way to traditions designed to use up the larder’s store of fat and sugar in one big community feast. After all, the spiritual discipline of fasting can be quite a challenge – let’s not add the siren call of a cupboard stocked full of tasty treats. Such temptations would only draw the mind away from the contemplation of spiritual truths, and toward the baser fulfillment of worldly desires.
If you’ve ever tried to stay on a diet while the rest of your household was still sucking down pizza and ice cream, then you know what I’m talking about. That is why the eve of one of the most austere and holy seasons of the liturgical calendar is often marked by excessive consumption of pancakes, doughnuts, and baked goods. After all, the best way to get rid of all those delicious temptations is to simply eat them up! In the case of the elaborate celebrations around the world as experienced at Mardi Gras or Carnival – well, let’s just add that some choose to indulge in excesses beyond the over-consumption of sugar and leave it at that.
At my church, we observe Shrove Tuesday as a day of joy and togetherness. Congregants of all ages gather together for an evening of fun. Board games, card games, and video games are set up all around the church basement for entertainment. The smell of strong coffee fills the air — for where ever two or more Lutherans are gathered, coffee is sure to be served. A large offering of paczki (Polish pastries) or fasnacht doughnuts (a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition) are made available for all to enjoy. Laughter fills the room, and everyone leaves with a smile on their face…provided they didn’t court a stomach ache by eating just a little too much off the pastry table.
It’s a family centered event – and not in just the sense of it being family friendly. Events like this also strengthen the bonds of our familial love for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. In this respect, Shrove Tuesday is but the first of many opportunities for the congregation to spend time together as we embark on our journey through the season of Lent. We will continue to meet and worship in community several times each week. There will be prayer services and soup luncheons, bible studies and support meetings. Each act of coming together knits us closer as a church family, and binds us to one another in God’s love.
Shrove Tuesday is not simply the last feast before an extended fast. It is the first step of a yearly spiritual quest, and the beginning of a season designed to draw us closer to God as we contemplate the awesome power of his sacrificial love for us.
And it all begins with doughnuts…how cool is that?