Once upon a time … There was no fairytale. Not here, not now anyway. No. Instead there used to be Shrovetide and not merely Shrove Tuesday, the excesses of Carnaval and Mardi gras, and pancakes. Since the time of preparation (for baptism of catechumens and the celebration of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection) is ahead it was considered proper to enter this Season of fasting with confession and receiving absolution. How far removed we are today from that noble intent we can easily see by using google to find Mardi gras and pull up some video-clips or pictures (not advised! ).
The Catholic Encyclopedia has the following useful information:
Shrovetide is the English equivalent of what is known in the greater part of Southern Europe as the “Carnival”, a word which, in spite of wild suggestions to the contrary, is undoubtedly to be derived from the “taking away of flesh” (carne levare) which marked the beginning of Lent. The English term “shrovetide” (from “to shrive”, or hear confessions) is sufficiently explained by a sentence in the Anglo-Saxon “Ecclesiastical Institutes” translated from Theodulphus by Abbot Aelfric about A.D. 1000: “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance]”. In this name shrovetide the religious idea is uppermost, and the same is true of the German Fastnacht (the eve of the fast). It is intelligible enough that before a long period of deprivations human nature should allow itself some exceptional licence in the way of frolic and good cheer. No appeal to vague and often inconsistent traces of earlier pagan customs seems needed to explain the general observance of a carnival celebration. The only clear fact which does not seem to be adequately accounted for is the widespread tendency to include the precedingThursday (called in French Jeudi gras and in German fetter Donnerstag — just as Shrove Tuesday is respectively called Mardi gras and fetter Dienstag) with the Monday and Tuesday which follow Quinquagesima. The English custom of eating pancakes was undoubtedly suggested by the need of using up the eggs and fat which were, originally at least, prohibited articles of diet during the forty days of Lent. The same prohibition is, of course, mainly responsible for the association of eggs with the Easter festival at the other end of Lent. Although the observance of Shrovetide in England never ran to the wild excesses which often marked this period of licence in southern climes, still various sports and especially games of football were common in almost all parts of the country, and in the households of the great it was customary to celebrate the evening ofShrove Tuesday by the performance of plays and masques. One form of cruel sport peculiarly prevalent at this season was the throwing at cocks, neither does it seem to have been confined to England. The festive observance of Shrovetide had become far too much a part of the life of the people to be summarily discarded at the Reformation. In Dekker’s “Seven Deadly Sins of London“, 1606, we read: “they presently, like prentices upon Shrove-Tuesday, take the game into their own hands and do what they list”; and we learn from contemporary writers that the day was almost everywhere kept as aholiday, while many kinds of horseplay seem to have been tolerated or winked at in the universities and public schools.
The excellent resource Full Homely Divinity (see sidebar) gives us a good grasp of the importance and meaning of Shrove Tuesday and I think it important enough to quote in full:
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.
We are about to enter the Season of Lent, the season of fasting. I recommend Full Homely Divinity as a resource over Lent to give guidance and meaning to your experience of this Season. Fasting as an ascetic discipline is not meant to simply torture ourselves. It is meant to cooperate with God’s grace so that our human constitution may begin to be restored from the debilitating effects sin has had on us. Evagrius writes:
But it is not only among people that the bond of peace (Eph. 4, 3) is to be sought, but also in your body and in your spirit, and in your soul. When you unify the bond of this trinity of yours by means of peace, then, unified by the commandment of the divine Trinity, you will hear: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God. For if you pacify with ascetic labours the flesh which lusts against the spirit (cf. Gal. 5, 17) you will possess the glory of the Beatitudes for eternity, because you have won the war which is waged in your body against the law of your mind and which holds you captive by the law of sin which is in your members (Rom. 7, 23).
Evagrius Ponticus, “To Eulogius”, 6 in Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus
One who has acquired the virtues of love holds captive the wickedness of the passions; and he who holds from the Holy Trinity these three, namely, faith, hope, and love, shall be a triple-walled city fortified by the towers of the virtues.
Evagrius Ponticus, “To Eulogius”, 11.
Have a blessed lent!
Fr. Gregory +