Today's post is also the cover article for our parish's newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn what's happening at St. John's in Decatur, Alabama, click here.
I had never heard of Shrove Tuesday until got to college. As a child of lower Alabama who grew up going to parades where the rowdiest display was the oversized plastic cigar hanging from the mouth of a moon-pie-throwing reveler, I knew that the last day before Lent was supposed to be a time for family fun. Even though we stayed away from Mobile, where the partying was more intense by at least one order of magnitude, those of us in L. A. knew where the celebratory pre-Lenten tradition got its first American expression. Before the Crescent City was even founded, French settlers on the shores of Mobile Bay were enjoying one last feast before the forty days of fasting began.
When I got to seminary, I discovered that many people in other countries have never even heard of “Mardi Gras” or “Fat Tuesday.” Instead, they call it “Pancake Day” and celebrate not only by eating stacks of cheap, syrup-drenched carbohydrates but also by running relay races that involve flipping and catching (and often dropping) pancakes. I suppose that a menu of pancakes lends itself to a series of short sprints. Now, I like a short stack as much as the next diner, but I would rather celebrate that last feast with a meal one cannot order at IHOP.
I get it, of course. In preparation for a season of simplicity and culinary deprivation, the tradition is to empty one’s larder of fat and sugar and whatever else one might be giving up for Lent. Given our hedonistic tendencies, it makes sense that on Fat Tuesday one might be tempted to overindulge on the specific things from which one will be abstaining during the forty-day wilderness journey—foie gras, for example. The link to the cupboard, however, is only secondary as the real focus of Shrove Tuesday is spiritual.
To be “shriven” is an archaic way of saying to make one’s confession and be absolved of one’s sins. The transitive form of the verb gets even closer to the meaning of the day as to “shrive” means to free someone from guilt. On the day before Ash Wednesday, we take preventative measures to free ourselves from the guilt that would arise if we stumbled on our Lenten journey and fell into the temptation that a box of Bisquick in the fridge might represent. Modern Mardi Gras celebrations are mostly a hangover from this purging of the pantry, but I want to invite you to consider what steps you might take remove some of the spiritual stumbling blocks that lie ahead.
Would you like for Lent to be a quieter time, when you are able to hear God’s voice a little more clearly? Consider blocking out thirty minutes for silence on your calendar every day. Do you feel a desire to get back to church as a regular, weekly habit? Start by making plans for an early bedtime this Saturday. Are you hoping to develop a daily pattern of reading from the holy scriptures? Go ahead and pull the bible down from its shelf and dust it off and place it in the chair where you like to sit each morning, or set missionstclare.com as your browser’s homepage. Would you like to reimmerse yourself in the Christian community and feel again like you belong to the Body of Christ? Pick up a copy of Forward Day by Day or our parish’s Lenten meditation booklet and read how other Christians are finding Jesus. Are you ready to care a little bit less about yourself and a little bit more about others? Set up an automatic daily bill pay of $10.00 to go to the Salvation Army or the CCC or, better yet, go to the bank and withdrawal forty ten-dollar bills and, each day, place another one in an old-fashioned pickle jar you have set on your kitchen counter for just that purpose.
Whatever you do, be proactive. Otherwise, the lure of ordinary things—things as common as pancake mix—will sneak up on you and threaten to disrupt your Lenten discipline. We are about to begin a forty-day journey through the wilderness. This journey could deepen your relationship with God, or it could end as soon as it starts. Make plans for the whole trip. Remove the impediments that might trip you up. If you stick with it, I promise that, when you come out on the other side, you will not be the same.