The real point of Shrove Tuesday

Amid all the pancakes, let’s not forget the real point of Shrove Tuesday, says Father Henry Whisenant

Tomorrow has many names. On the Continent, Mardi Gras (or “Fat Tuesday”); here in England, Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday. The last name refers to the custom in the Middle Ages of the people being “shriven” – that is, making their Confession to a priest at this time, in preparation for the season of Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday. Having recently gone through the process of moving parish, and the therefore the inevitable task of throwing away things that I’ve hoarded but never used, I would compare the sacrament of Confession to a spiritual “spring clean”, in which, before God in the person of his minister, we throw out all the junk that is clogging up our heart and soul. (Remember that the word Lent itself comes from the old English name for Spring.)

Pancake Tuesday, or “Fat Tuesday”, suggests a similar emptying process, this time not of our sins, but of the good things of this life, which we forego during this penitential season leading up to Easter. In past years people would have made pancakes and other treats on this day as a way of getting rid of all the eggs, butter and milk that would not be eaten in Lent – hence the association of eggs at Eastertime. If this sounds bad enough, remember that meat was also off the menu from Wednesday onwards! While most Christians in the West no longer have a regulated list of banned Lenten foods (others, like the Keralan Catholics and the Orthodox, continue to keep the old fast), it is still common today for Christians, and even non-Christians, to “give something up” for Lent.

What is this all about anyway? Is it just a masochistic exercise in “virtue signalling” – a kind of religious dare to oneself? Well, perhaps it can be misused as such. But the real purpose of foregoing something in Lent is not to show how strong and brave we are. It is in fact the opposite. We suddenly realise that, bereft of our favourite daily treat or weekly spend, we are weaker than we thought. It is a powerful reminder in our flesh of the words that we hear in the church on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. Our Lenten fast helps us confront the fact of our frailty and our mortality, precisely so we can cast off all illusions and subtle idols and return again to God, who alone sustains us. Fasting helps us say with conviction the words of Our Lord in the desert: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”.