Lent Events: Shrove Tuesday & Ash Wednesday   1 comment

‘Shrove Tuesday’ can’t be fixed as a date on the calendar because Easter Sunday is decided according to the Jewish Feast of the Passover and the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. This is determined by the full moon, so Easter may fall on any date between March 22nd and April 25th. So Lent, or Shrovetide, is variable to the same extent. The penitential season of Lent lasts forty days, not counting Sundays, its length connected to the days spent in the wilderness by Jesus in preparation for his ministry. The Anglo-Saxon word, ‘scrifan’ meant to impose a penance on oneself, and this gives us the verb ‘to shrive’ and the past tense of this yields the adjective ‘Shrove’ for the festival on the eve of Lent. The housewife used up all the meats that were not to be eaten during Lent on the Monday, and on the Tuesday the ‘larder’ had to be cleared of all fats and creams. Traditionally, these were put into pancakes, the eating of which was accompanied by all kinds of games and festivities, many of which survive as communal activities, including village football matches and tugs-of-war. In France, this is ‘Mardi-Gras’, Fat Tuesday; in Germany, ‘Fastendiensteg’; in Hungary, ‘last meat day’. In England, the festival is celebrated in Ashbourne in Derbyshire by a rather violent form of mass football between Uptown and Downtown, which lasts all day. Anyone can join in, and the shop-fronts in the High Streets are boarded up as it usually gets out of hand.

There are also various pancake races, involving the ‘tossing’ of the pancake. The race at Olney in Buckinghamshire is open to women aged eighteen and over who have lived in the village for at least three months. Each competitor wears an apron and bonnet to run from the market square to the church, about a quarter-mile (400 metres) with a pan holding a pancake which must be tossed three times. The winner is kissed by the verger and receives a prayer-book, which the runner-up also gets. The event goes back four centuries to a moment when a housewife, hearing the church bells telling her she was late for worship, rushed off still holding the pan she was cooking pancakes in.

The word ‘Lent’ derives from the same root as ‘length’, signifying the time of year when the days began to grow longer. My favourite ‘sentence’ for Lent is about the inner struggle for purity and light:

‘Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.’

After the fun of Shrove Tuesday, the solemn season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The medieval church had strict rules about fasting and penitence which have changed over time and generally become more relaxed, even for the Catholic priests. My father-in-law was an incense-bearer as a young boy in Hungary and was sent on an errand to the priest’s house during Lent. When he entered he found the priest eating meat, and after that he fell out of love with the church. This was long before Hungary became a Soviet-controlled country. The Hungarian word for Shrove Tuesday, ‘meat-leaving’ shows that at one time no meat could be eaten on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, so this priest was guilty of hypocrisy in the eyes of my father-in-law, who, as an impressionable young boy, expected him to be a better role-model. However, fish could be eaten, as it traditionally was on Fridays throughout the year, so the Fishmongers did a good trade, not just in Dublin’s fair city, but in every Catholic country. That’s why every monastery kept its fish-pond and in Britain, a sea-going nation, cod ‘n’ chips or haddock ‘n’ chips is still a traditional family Friday feast. Many school canteens in Britain still serve fish only on Friday lunch-times, including the International College I worked for last there. It proved very popular with the largely British staff and international students alike, especially since our Spanish chef was such an expert on preparing various fish dishes. However, these rules are no longer so commonly observed in the Anglican and Nonconformist communities, where the emphasis on reflection and meditation is more important than the outward signs, and Lent is seen as a time for a renewal of faith and self-examination in matters of caring for others and missed opportunities. As a Quaker friend wrote to me yesterday, what matters most in the current debate on the role of religion in national life in Britain, is that people of all beliefs, whether professing a faith, or calling themselves ‘humanist’, ‘secularist’ or ‘atheist’, should dig deeper than a ‘shallow materialism’ to examine their consciences.

The actual name for Ash Wednesday, which is the same in Hungarian, ‘Hamasvazószerda’, derives from an ancient custom in which a sinner made public penance by appearing before the congregation wearing only a sack cloth and covered with ashes. The Old Testament prophets were said to do this. The present-day service in the Catholic Church uses ashes from the burning of the palm crosses given out to the congregation the previous Palm Sunday. These ashes are placed in a bowl and, after a blessing and sprinkling with holy water, they are used by the priest to mark a cross with his thumb on the foreheads of those present. As he does this, he repeats the words from the burial service:

Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return.

If the EU regulations on fishing are the object of hatred by British fishermen today, the fasting regulations imposed by Parliament in 1562 were certainly advantagous for them. Lord Cecil, Elizabeth’s Chief Minister, persuaded it to pass a ‘politic ordinance on fish eating’ which made meat-eating on a fast day punishable by a fine of three pounds or three months’ imprisonment. Puritans avoided fish diets on principle as a result, as a protest against the ‘superfluous feasting, or gormondizing, or paunch-cramming’ which went on at ‘festivals’. Perhaps this is where the doctrine of ‘everything in moderation’ comes from! In the end, the interests of both the fishermen and the ‘hard-pressed’ congregations were met by allowing a ‘let-up’ in the middle of Lent, through the institution of Refreshment Sunday, or Mothering Sunday. This is not to be confused with the American ‘Mother’s Day’ which is fixed in the USA as the second Sunday in May. More on this next week….

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One response to “Lent Events: Shrove Tuesday & Ash Wednesday

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  1. Pingback: Episcopal Priests Offer “Ashes To Go” As Lent Begins « Anne's POWER SURGE Blog

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