What is the relationship between Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday?
A waist-high pile of rocks was left behind the rectory garage in Vermont when the Riley family moved to California. This pile of rocks had accumulated over the four spring seasons that we gardened in Vermont. When we rototilled our patch, rocks were dug up from frost heaves, pushing to the surface stones left by an ancient glacier.
This begs the question: How do we get from a pile of rocks to Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday? Answer: They each have to do with Lent.
The etymology of lent tells us this Anglo-Saxon word became length. The season of Lent was marked by the lengthening of the days, which is commonly now called spring. Of course, spring plowing precedes planting. And plowing often digs up old stones.
In the medieval European church, popular understandings and practices were laced with fear. One such fear was that if a person who was unworthy received communion, he or she would be brought to judgment (I Corinthians 11). Therefore, if one desired to receive communion at Easter, it would be necessary to present oneself as spiritually “clean.” So, the forty days before Easter became a time of preparing oneself. Metaphorically, this meant getting rid of spiritual “old stones,” stones that weigh us down.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday with our Prayer Book’s invitation to “the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial: and by reading and meditating on God‘s holy Word.”
Lenten fasting, for many, was accomplished by not eating meat, eggs, or fat. Making pancakes to use up these forbidden foods on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday became a tradition in Britain, as did going to confession (getting rid of “stones”). The Anglo-Saxon verb “to shrive” (shrive, shrove, shriven) means “to confess.” The British Shrove Tuesday saw its equivalent in Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday") in France; "Carnival" has its roots in the Latin "Carne vale," or “Farewell, meat!” Many Christian cultures precede Lent with some form of last party before Lent but also include making a confession, along with the gathering and burning of the previous year’s Palm Sunday palms for the ashes to be used on Ash Wednesday.
Those old stones which spiritually, and even physically, weigh us down might include troublesome habits, distractions, toxic appetites, hostile attitudes and, especially, failing to keep the promises we make in our Episcopal Baptismal Covenant.
As with gardening, getting rid of stones prepares the way for new life, new growth.
And as I have been known to say, “Making a formal confession is the quickest way known to lose weight!”
Hope this helps,
Dear Old Dad (DOD)
Do you have a burning question about church, Episcopal/Anglican traditions, theology, and so on? In our weekly feature "Ask Dear Old Dad," after the classic "Dear Abby" format, the Rev. Reese Riley, COS Senior Adjunct Clergy, will tackle your questions with his signature wisdom and charm. And by the way, there are no dumb questions! You may request to be anonymous, or you may have your name published. Your questions will inspire the conversation! Submit your question to Hannah at HannahR@COSepiscopal.org