Lenten ghost in Shrove Tuesday

If you are interested in reading a really great news story about pancakes, The Newspaper That Lands In My Yard has just published a really fine one. It has lots of butter and syrup. However, if you are interested in knowing something about the state of Shrove Tuesday in modern churches or what this small-t tradition has to do with the big-T Traditions of Great Lent, then this Baltimore Sun report is not for you. What we have here is a fun story that is haunted by a totally serious ghost.

It is interesting that the story opens with Lutherans preparing for Lent, sort of. It's Lite Lent:

Scents of savory sausage, freshly cooked pancakes and hot coffee emanated from the church hall at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Rosedale for the annual Shrove Tuesday dinner. Many of the guests donned colorful beads and masks.

Like diners at Christian congregations throughout the area, the crowd of about 200 at Prince of Peace dug into steamy stacks, smothered in maple syrup and melting butter -- the typical Fat Tuesday meal and the last festive dinner before Lent begins. For many, the modest, calorie-laden supper means Mardi Gras more than any celebration with parades and parties.

"I think we are blending traditions," Pastor Mark Fuhrman said of the pre-Lenten meal amid Mardi Gras accessories. "It's in the same spirit as Mardi Gras. ... It's one big party tied to the tradition of consuming all the fat in the house before Lent, the season of penance, begins. The next day, things are different, at least liturgically."

Before we proceed, please go back and read that important quote from the Lutheran pastor again -- with an emphasis on the final sentence. We'll be coming back to that.

Now, let's ask some basic questions and look for answers. Let's start with an obvious one: What's with the word "fat" in Fat Tuesday?

Pancakes signal the "farewell to meat," a translation of the word "carnival." Father Frank Brauer, pastor of the Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley, which served a free pancake supper, said the day before Ash Wednesday has traditionally been the occasion to de-fat -- or remove all the animal fat from -- the household and focus on 40 days of prayer and fasting.

"It all goes back to the time when people cooked with animal fat, not canola or vegetable oil," he said.

Now, maybe the priest's quote ended right there and maybe it didn't. You see, there's much more that that topic. For starters, that "farewell to meat" thing also used to mean, well, a farewell to meat.

You see, what this story lacks is any description of what the season of Great Lent means and how it is observed. Then again, it also lacks any information about how Lent is no longer observed, which means that it would help to explain how the most holy of Christian penitential seasons used to be observed -- which is why the day that the story is supposedly about even exists in the first place.

In other words, this story about Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday needs at least a sentence of two about the serious content of Lent. It may be hard to do that in a light-hearted story about pancakes. I know that. But a sentence of two?

A reporter looking at the roots of all of this might start with that strange word "shrove," which is another form of "shrive." What does it mean?


... Shrove or shrived, shriv-en or shrived, shriv-ing. -- verb (used with object) 1. to impose penance on (a sinner). 2. to grant absolution to (a penitent). 3. to hear the confession of (a person).

-- verb (used without object) Archaic . 4. to hear confessions. 5. to go to or make confession; confess one's sins, as to a priest.

Sounds pretty serious. Note the emphasis on confession. This is part of the ghost, since in Catholic Tradition -- large T -- all sacramental Catholics are supposed to go to confession in Lent. However, there is confusion about that now and hardly anyone goes to confession anymore. Also, hardly anyone fasts from meat anymore. Why?

So what happened to Lent? How did it turn into a giving-up-one-thing tradition that exists nowhere in the history of Christianity? Hello, ghost.

That's one of the ghosts in this story. Here's another ghost: More and more Protestant churches, even liberal ones, are getting interested in ancient rituals and the spiritual disciplines that go with them. So look for pancakes in more and more churches and even the occasional ashes on Ash Wednesday in settings -- even a few Baptist sanctuaries -- where they would never have been seen before.

But what do they mean? How are these sort-of-old traditions taught and practiced?

So back to that quotation from the Lutheran pastor: "It's one big party tied to the tradition of consuming all the fat in the house before Lent, the season of penance, begins. The next day, things are different, at least liturgically."

The next day, things are different -- but only in church services. There's that ghost, again.

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