Shrovetide: Getting ready for Lent.

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. 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 that 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 starts the ninth Sunday before Easter. Since that’s 63 days before, western Christian custom rounds that up to 70 and calls 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 the Sunday after that is 48 days before, so Quinquagesima Sunday (for 50), and that’s today. 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. The 11th Sunday before Easter is Zacchaeus Sunday, in which they don’t really do anything special; it’s just this is the week they read the Zacchaeus story Lk 19.1-10 in their liturgy, so it triggers them: “Uh-oh, it’s the Zacchaeus story; Lent is coming.” The 10th Sunday before, they read the story of the publican and Pharisee, Lk 18.9-14 as a reminder to not get boastful about fasting—and 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 what westerners call Shrove Sunday.

The English verb shrive is one we seldom use anymore, and pretty much only during shrovetide. It means to confess sins. Holy days are coming, so Christians wanna be ritually clean, and unlike the Hebrews, the way Christians traditionally do this 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! Clean up your act. And some of ’em 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.

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. The term is French for “gross Tuesday,” a translation I like way better than the usual “fat Tuesday,” because while there’s a lot of awesome jazz, there’s also a lot of icky behavior taking place in these 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 it 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 fornicating now, while you still can. As if we aren’t supposed to put away that stuff once we started following Jesus. Ga 5.16

See, this behavior is so antithetical to Christianity, it makes me believe 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’re truly following Jesus, we simply aren’t gonna go there. Humans may be creatures of extremes, but we’re gonna know better—and the Holy Spirit within us is definitely gonna remind us—this extreme goes too far.

So let’s shrive.

Most Christians pay little attention to shrovetide till it’s Shrove Sunday, meaning the week Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. 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 we’re not confessing sin so that God might forgive and save us; he did that already. We confess them because we’re striving to stop sinning. We’re trying to break these habits, trying to resist the temptation to do ’em again, and one of the ways we do that is to admit we have a sin problem. Publicly if necessary, but usually it’s not 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.