Shrovetide: Getting ready for Lent.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 February

Christmas definitely gets all the secular attention, but Easter is most definitely Christianity’s biggest holiday. ’Cause Christ is risen. Jesus is alive. His being alive confirms everything he teaches. So we Christians put a lot into it…

…and kinda go overboard. That’s what shrovetide is about. You may already know before Easter we have a fasting period which English-speakers call Lent. Well, before Lent there’s a whole other season called shrovetide in which Christians prepare for Lent.

Shrovetide actually starts the ninth Sunday before Easter—two weeks ago. That’s 63 days before, but western Christian custom is to round it up to 70 and call it Septuagesima Sunday (from the Latin for 70, of course). The Sunday after that is 56 days before, so round it up again and it’s Sexagesima Sunday (for 60); and this Sunday is 48 days before, so Quinquagesima Sunday (for 50). Although more Christians simply call this day Shrove Sunday, the Sunday before Lent starts. And the last day of shrovetide is Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.

Eastern Christians feel they always gotta outdo western Christians, so their customs start even earlier, with the 11th Sunday before Easter. It’s called Zacchaeus Sunday, ’cause it’s the week in their liturgy in which they read the Zacchaeus story. Lk 19.1-10 They don’t do anything extra-special for Zacchaeus Sunday; it’s just a reminder: “Uh-oh, it’s the Zacchaeus story; Lent is coming.” The 10th Sunday before, they read the Pharisee and Taxman Story, Lk 18.9-14 and use it as a reminder to not get boastful about fasting—but they deliberately don’t fast this week. The ninth Sunday is the Prodigal Son Story; Lk 15.11-32 the eighth is Last Judgment Sunday, after which they stop eating meat; the seventh is Forgiveness Sunday, after which they stop eating dairy… and Forgiveness Sunday is today. What westerners call Shrove Sunday.

The English verb shrive is one we seldom use anymore, unless it’s shrovetide. It means to confess sins. Holy days are coming, so Christians wanna be ritually clean. Unlike the Hebrews, the way Christians traditionally clean up isn’t to get literally clean (which, eww, ’cause we should, but then again this isn’t the point): It’s to get spiritually clean. Stop sinning, and make sure there are no sins on our consciences. Exhibit some of that self-control the Spirit’s trying to develop in us.

Honestly we should be living this way all the time. But liturgical churches use shrovetide as a way of waking Christians up: Easter’s coming! Get your s--t together. And some of us do.

The rest… not so much.

Party time! Excellent!

I didn’t grow up with shrovetide and Lent. I grew up Fundamentalist, and Fundies consider Lent a Catholic thing and dead religion. And popular culture’s irreligious shrovetide activities seem to confirm all their suspicions.

’Cause the way a lot of people “practice” shrovetide is to get their sins out of their systems… by committing them. Fr’instance in the United States we have Mardi Gras—French for “gross Tuesday,” a translation I like way better than the usual “fat Tuesday.” It may have a lot of awesome jazz, but there’s also a lot of nasty behavior at Mardi Gras festivals. I’ve been to the New Orleans festival once, as a kid. All I remember were floats, beads, and coins which annoyingly didn’t work in vending machines. I vaguely remember drunken revelers, but Mom definitely remembers that part of it, and found the rest so horrifying she sought us refuge in a church building.

In other parts of the world they celebrate Carnaval, Latin for—I kid you not—“flesh party.” (Put carnal and festival together, and you get carnaval.) The general idea of these parties is you get all your vices out of your system by indulging them. ’Cause during Lent you’re meant to stop indulging them. So do your drinking and fighting and promiscuity now, while you still can. As if we aren’t supposed to put away this stuff once we start following Jesus. Ga 5.16

See, this behavior is so antithetical to Christianity, I can’t help but conclude practicing Catholics never created these festivals. More like lapsed Catholics who wanted to have some ironic fun at the expense of the devout. ’Cause you notice who actually goes to these functions: Pagans and irreligious Christians. The devout stay home… unless they’re actually trying to evangelize the revelers, as my brother tried to do one year. (Hey, Jesus loves ’em too.)

Enough about what they’re up to. My point is Fundies, and other Christians who really don’t wanna practice any more self-control than they already do (assuming they practice any at all), actually use the revelry as their excuse to abstain from abstaining.

You think I haven’t noticed their underlying bad attitudes? “Look at those people. They sin their brains out, then go to confession. As if that wipes their slate clean.” And yeah, if you’re an irreligious Catholic it’s exactly how you think: Sin Tuesday, repent Wednesday; cheap grace cures all.

But that’s like assuming every drunken Christmas party is a Protestant thing, or shopping mall riots are how we thank God for his blessings every Thanksgiving. Don’t confuse the secular madness with any actual religious observance. Got that?

Yeah, some Christians, including devout Christians, are gonna do a bit of feasting during shrovetide because Lent is a time of fasting. And that’s fine. Going overboard into sin is not fine, and that’s where the Carnaval partiers go horribly wrong—and where they expose themselves as not truly being Christian. If we truly follow Jesus, we aren’t gonna go there! Humans may be creatures of extremes, but we know better—and the Holy Spirit within us is definitely gonna remind us—these extremes go too far.

So let’s shrive.

Most Christians pay little attention to shrovetide till it’s Shrove Sunday. Or even Shrove Tuesday. Then suddenly it’s “Oh yeah; I gotta pick one thing to give up for Lent.” Or otherwise get ready for Lent. Or for Easter itself; put up the decorations, start organizing the Easter productions, start the church outreach.

Go ahead and do all that stuff. It’s good stuff!—when done correctly, and for the right reasons. But the one thing shrovetide is named for, is the one thing we should probably do most: We gotta start confessing our sins.

’Cause we’ve all sinned. We’ve all slipped up. We’re nowhere near the level of God’s glory. Ro 3.23 He’s already forgiven these sins, and saved us through Christ Jesus, so don’t get the idea we’re confessing sin so that God might forgive and save us. He did that already! We confess them because we’re still striving to stop sinning. We’re trying to break these habits, trying to resist the temptation to do ’em again. One of the ways we do that is to admit we have a sin problem. Publicly if necessary, but it’s not always necessary. Privately, to a trustworthy fellow Christian, is just fine.

If you choose to opt out of Lent, you can. But don’t opt out of confession. Never opt out of fighting sin.