It is probably not at the top of the list of most peoples’ popular celebrations. Even the name sounds archaic and odd. But “Shrove Tuesday” will be observed by millions of Christians today in a variety of ways, all over the world.
“Shrove” is the past tense of the word “to shrive.” “To shrive” is to present oneself to a priest for confession, followed by the assignment of an act of penitence, and the reception of absolution.
While we maintain the term”shrove” for this day, I doubt the majority of Christians today will be presenting themselves to a priest for confession, committing themselves to a penitential act, or hearing the priestly words of absolution.
It is more likely, in our culture that, if Shrove Tuesday is acknowledged at all, it will be observed by eating pancakes for dinner.
The practice of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday relates to the fact that Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is the forty day period leading up to the celebration of Easter. It is traditionally a season of abstinence and particular spiritual discipline.
In preparation for Lent, Shrove Tuesday is the last chance for culinary indulgence. On this day foods that were viewed as unsuitable for the frugal season of Lent were consumed. Pancakes were eaten because they contain fat, butter and eggs which were considered too rich for the abstinent season of Lent.
Because of the dietary practice associated with the day, Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras from the French for fat (gras) and Tuesday (Mardi).
The practice of Shrove Tuesday may seem quaint and old fashioned in our current context. But, properly understood, Shrove Tuesday has the potential to call us back to the central understanding of Christian faith.
Shrove Tuesday reminds us that, according to Christian teaching, we grow spiritually more by subtraction than by addition. The central act of the spiritual life is the act of letting go. The way forward always lies on the path of surrender.
Confession, penitence, and absolution, are not merely medieval abuses imposed by a rigid ecclesiastical hierarchy upon innocent and helpless laity.
Confession encourages us to examine our lives in search of those practices and habits we have accumulated that cause us to become less conscious of the presence and action of God in our lives.
An intentional act of penitence is an opportunity to make a course correction in our lives signifying our intention to wake up and live more consciously, acknowledging the deep mystery at the heart of our existence.
Absolution is an audible reminder that, whenever we intend to return to the Source of our existence and live in the light of God’s love, our hearts do open and our consciousness of God’s presence is renewed.
Shrove Tuesday is an opportunity to look into the larder of our lives identifying those items that are not conducive to a robust spiritual life.
In a culture in which we are increasingly conscious of the importance of nutrition and of the impact of the food we eat on our bodies and on our environment, Shrove Tuesday provides an important metaphor for the spiritual journey. The things to which we cling have an impact upon our lives. The practices of self-examination and surrender have the potential to open us to deep new ways of being.
Shrove Tuesday could be the beginning of a journey back to health for our spirits and our bodies.