It would be understandable, if someone who is new to our tradition, were confused by the names and activities around the Lenten season. What does “shrove” mean? Why do we “give up” stuff for Lent? And what in the world do pancakes have to do with being penitential? Allow me to shed some light on these questions and invite you to embrace traditions that you might find edifying to your spiritual life.
“Shrove”comes from the verb “shrive” which is Old English for “absolve.” The idea here is that one would make a private or auricular (to the ear) confession the day before Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday. This practice goes back at least 1,000 years. In about AD 1,000 an English Benedictine Abbot wrote “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him…” In the American Book of Common Prayer this rite is called “Reconciliation of the Penitents” which puts into practice Jesus’ commission to the Church, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
When it comes to private confession, the Anglican rule is “All may, some should, none must.” But truth be told it is an under-utilized sacrament and as such folks are missing this gift of grace that can bring spiritual and emotional healing.
There are two important things to know about making a confession. First you don’t have to wait until you have broken one of the big ten to come to a priest. We all readily accumulate sins every day. Pride, anger, unforgiveness…. on and on the list goes. Who among us could say that they have always loved God with all of their heart and soul and strength and have loved their neighbors as themselves? Thus St. John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:8). In light of that the Sacrament of Confession should be a regular event in the Christian’s life, a spiritual version of changing your oil every 3,000 miles.
The second important thing to know about confession is that the seal of the confession is absolute. A priest can never repeat what he heard in a confession nor can he ever bring it up again. The Lord says, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” (Is 43:25). Once the sin is absolved it is gone and so there is nothing left to talk about. While Shrove Tuesday is a day set apart for confessions, any day is appropriate, particularly any day during the two penitential seasons of Lent and Advent.
In Ireland Shrove Tuesday is also called “Pancake Tuesday” and surprisingly very similar traditions exist all around the Christian world. In Lithuania they eat their version of a doughnut. In Spain they eat omelets. In Sweden they eat sweet rolls. But why and what does eating these things have to do with Lent?
Following the Jewish tradition of ridding the home of yeast (a symbol of sin) before Passover, Christians around the world will rid their homes of fat and meat and eggs and dairy in order to observe a Lenten fast. And what better way to rid your home of those things than by making pancakes? There is even a delightful tradition in England of a pancake race that dates back to 1445. It is said that a housewife was so busy making pancakes that she forgot about Mass until she heard the church bells ring. With the pan still in her hand, and with apron on, she dashed to church while flipping the pancake to keep it from burning. To this day you must wear an apron and flip the pancake throughout the race in order to win. It is a good that we can have some fun as we approach a penitential season. It is appropriate to feast before a fast. In this way we are taking God very seriously but ourselves not so much.
There is a spiritual parallel to the pancake tradition. As we are ridding our homes of certain foods, we should be ridding our lives of certain attitudes and behaviors that cause us harm or that have begun to enslave us. Lent can be a time of breaking bad habits and creating new good ones. It is a time to do a spiritual spring-cleaning, which brings us back to the Sacrament of Confession.
Lent is patterned after the 40 days that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. It is the 40 days, plus Sundays, before Easter. Lent does not include Sundays because Sundays are always feast days in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Lent is a penitential time that has 3 hallmarks; fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
For most Christians today the Lenten fast is a partial fast like Daniel’s in chapter one of that book. So when you hear someone talk about what they are giving up they are simply identifying their fast. In the western Church this fast is highly personal and therefore should be approached by prayer and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Some fast from foods like meat and dairy. Some fast from alcohol. Others fast from things that have nothing to do with food like giving up social media or listening to talk radio.
Whatever the fast, it should be impactful enough that the temptation to break it acts as a call to prayer. In this way our prayer life increases during Lent. Fasting and prayer make up two sides of the same coin. To fast and not pray is a waste of a fast.
Some marry increased prayer with a new godly discipline. The hope here is that by doing a new discipline for 40 days it would become a way of life that makes life better. For example the discipline could be faithfully praying the daily office, or attending mid week Mass or reading a Christian book. Lent is not intended to make us miserable, it is intended to make us more mature.
The third hallmark of Lent is increased almsgiving. This is important because so many of our daily sins are rooted in selfishness. When we quit living for ourselves alone, and care for the needs of others, we become more Christ-like. And He would be the first to point us in the direction of the poor and outcast.
One practical way to increase almsgiving is to pair it with the fast. For example as you give up your daily gourmet coffee, you would then take that money and give it to the poor. At St. Patrick’s we place our alms in mite boxes throughout Lent and then collect them on Easter. Those united funds are sent to a ministry that cares directly for the poor.
Shrove Tuesday, Pancakes, and Lent. These are centuries old traditions that Christians have embraced throughout the ages to strengthen their walk with the Lord. This season of prayer, fasting, and self-reflection also serves to deepen the significance of Easter. Instead of skipping from Christmas to Easter, we walk with the Lord through the 40 days in the wilderness. This fast before the feast makes His victory even sweeter.