Shrove Tuesday reflection
21st February 2023
Today is Shrove Tuesday. The word shrove derives from the Middle English word shriven meaning “to make confession; to administer the sacrament of penance to,” In the 15th century (and earlier) Shrovetide wasn’t just a Tuesday but was the three days before Ash Wednesday. Three days, including a Sunday, would have given more opportunity for people to formally confess their sins and receive their penance – what they must do to atone for the sins they have committed.
Once shriven – absolved from sin – the penitent was ready to embark on the forty days of Lent: forty days of fasting and observing the penance they had been given. Fasting is holding back for pleasures and often includes food. Not ‘not eating’ but not eating certain foods, typically meat and dairy products. In many countries the days preceding Ash Wednesday are called Carnival. The name comes from the Medieval Latin ‘carnelevamen’ meaning to put away, to not eat meat.
Not wanting perhaps to waste food, or perhaps to enjoy one last pleasure before the fast began, the days before Lent have becomes days for feasting and merriment. Hence Carnival and shrove Tuesday pancakes! For those of us who are carnivores or vegetarians, giving up meat and dairy products for forty days could be a challenge. In the 15th century it may have been less so – Lent coincided with the lean time of the year when winter supplies had largely been eaten and spring foods had yet to appear. Fasting from meat and dairy products may have been a necessity rather than a choice.
But now, as more people swop to plant based diets, the restrictions of Lent can seem less daunting. There is a growing range of plant based foods, recipes, cuisines etc that makes not eating meat no penance. What then is the purpose of fasting? Fasting can be a way of cultivating self discipline. It can be a way of focusing our awareness on the needs of others: some people opt to limit their food intake to the limited amount that many brothers and sisters ensure as a necessity. Some opt to eat only locally grown produce such as the Fife diet as a way of rooting their awareness of local food production. Some might concentrate on foods that adhere to Green Christian’s LOAF principles – local, organic, animal friendly and fairly traded.
Such fasting for Lent shows us how penance can be constructive. It helps us both to address the harm we have caused and to learn new habits to stop us from committing the same sins again. Fasting and penance need not apply just to food. Some people practice a carbon fast, cutting back on activities or use of equipment that has a high carbon footprint. Some might opt out fast from consumerism, and cut back on new purchases, cut out of retail therapy etc. some might fast from work – some of us put work and achievement as a priority in our lives and may wish to spend more time with friends, with family, with nature, with God.
In some cultures past and present, those who were penitent wished to make a clear statement of their decision – their need – to repent and would put on clothing made for sacking, would cut their hair, or go barefoot. Such action strengthened their resolve and was a witness to others for the need for repentance.
If we want to take Lent seriously as a time for re orientating ourselves towards the resurrection and life lived in Christ, then observing Shrove Tuesday as a time to confess our sins and to accepting a penance that will be make good at least some of the harm our sins, is a good starting point. However you may find yourself in a minority with most people deferring such reflection and preparation till Ash Wednesday. Even in the church, Shrovetide has been replaced by ‘pancake day’ and become a day in which to eat pancakes in all shapes and sizes and adorned with all manner of flavourings from the sweet sour lemon and sugar, to the meaty ones of bacon and maple syrup.
Ash Wednesday is the modern Shrovetide.