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Shriven through Faith!

We live in a world in which the penitent, nearly penitent, and far-from-penitent are fond of using the expression “I’m giving up ______ for Lent.”

We live in a world which views Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the eve of the penitent and repentant season of Lent in the Christian Church (which begins next week), as little more than a peep show transacted with beads. Thanks to the influence of years of institutional church tradition, the Mardi Gras parties go on before the soul’s 40-day probation period leading to Good Friday begins. Mardi Gras in the predominately Roman Catholic and French-speaking world is the last day of the week of gluttony that precedes Ash Wednesday, the traditional start of Lent among Christians. In many Spanish-speaking cultures, Fat Tuesday is the end of Carnaval (sort of a sister celebration to Mardi Gras); for those of German heritage (particularly the Pennsylvania Dutch), there will be Fastnachtkuchen (donuts); for traditional Russian Orthodox commemorating (or celebrating, perhaps, in rural communities) Maslenitsa or Pancake Week, Tuesday is called Zaigrish or Game Day. However, the day before the start of Lent is also Shrove Tuesday, which gets its name from the custom for Christians to be “shriven” be fore the start of Lent.

Shrove Tuesday (aka Fat Tuesday) is the name more commonly used among Anglicans (Episcopalians), and historically the day a thrifty housewife uses up the fats kept around the house (can of bacon drippings, whatever) for cooking, but not using during Lent. Since pancakes are a standard way of using up fat, the day is also called Pancake Tuesday. In many parts of Great Britain, the day is celebrated with pancake races—contestants run a course while holding a griddle and flipping a pancake.

As for me, I prefer to be shriven, rather than fattened on the Tuesday before Lent. Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the past tense of the verb “to shrive,” which means a) to impose penance on (a sinner), b) to grant absolution to (a penitent), or c) to hear the confession of (a person). That first one is Catholic, not Lutheran; however, the other two are catholic (universal) in the Christian Church and not at all reserved for this particular day in the church year.

For all its clichés and misunderstanding, Lent still remains my favorite church season. For me Lent is a time of wondering; to wonder why God would go to such great lengths to save generation after generation of ornery and disobedient creatures like us; to wonder at such an unconditional love that cannot be understood in human terms; to wonder about how this Jesus could truly bear the full wrath of God, suffering a Roman execution that He never deserved… so that I could be forgiven.

Among Lutherans, Ash Wednesday and Lent are an important part of the church calendar leading to Easter. There are no enforced or imposed dietary restrictions or penitential requirements (though many congregations host a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper as a way to share a common Christian tradition and look forward to the start of Lent. Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism that “fasting and other outward preparations may serve a good purpose” in preparing ourselves to receive the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion). But the best preparation, he said, is believing Jesus’ words. Fasting (which some Lutherans do prior to the Lord’s Supper, or any time) can be a beneficial practice, but there is no substitute for faith. The practice of “giving up” something for Lent is neither encouraged or frowned upon, but is more a Roman Catholic practice which many Christians follow.

Christians swim at different depths; no doubt many (of you) have already vowed “I’m giving up ______ for Lent.” But be sure not to give Shrove Tuesday short shrift (a phrase originally meaning the barely adequate time for confession before an execution)... Now go in peace. Be not fattened by sin, but shriven through faith!

Pastor E.B. Holschuh serves at Zion Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Alamo. He is a retired Navy Senior Chief and former English and Russian. If you’d like to find out more about God, please email him at pastor@zionalamo.org. Visit Zion Lutheran at zionalamo.org; join us for worship at 9am Sunday (live-streamed via YouTube) and check out our podcast “Fear or Faith?” (episodes in English, Spanish, and Russian).

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