A Faithful Fat Tuesday

In this episode of Christian Mythbusters, Father Jared debunks the myths (or, really the misconceptions) about the point of Fat Tuesday / Shrove Tuesday / Mardi Gras, etc.). You can hear Christian Mythbusters in the Grand Haven area on 92.1 WGHN, on Wednesdays at 10:30am and Sundays at 8:50am.

The transcript of the episode is below, or you can listen to the audio at the bottom of the post.

This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith. 

Well, Lent is just around the corner with Fat Tuesday (or Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras or whatever your culture or tradition calls it) coming to us on February 16 and then the beginning of Lent arriving on Ash Wednesday, February 17.

Given the variety of cultural experiences and approaches to this final day before Lent, I thought today might be a good day to break some of the myths—or really, more accurately, misconceptions people have—about the final day before Lent. Quick answer? It’s not just about parties or pączki—though I do admit to loving a good pączki.

It’s actually pretty interesting how every culture approaches the final days before Lent differently. You can get some of the different approaches just through the names different countries and languages use. 

For some cultures, the celebrations of the Tuesday before Lent stretch even longer than just that one day. In New Orleans, the celebrations begin on Twelfth Night (January 5, the last day before the Epiphany on January 6, the Epiphany being where the church remembers the visit of the magi to the child Jesus). Hence the custom of eating King’s Cake from Epiphany all the through Mardi Gras… Mardi Gras being French for Fat Tuesday) itself on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. 

Are you keeping up with me?

In German the day is called Fastnachtsdienstag (forgive my German), literally the Tuesday night of fasting. In Pennsylvania Dutch country it is called simply Fastnacht Day and there is a donut called a fastnach that is associated with its observance. 

Though those who love pączki often will call the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday Pączki Day, the traditional Polish name is Fat Tuesday (and no, I’m not even going to attempt to pronounce that in Polish). Both the baking of fastnach and of pączki come from this idea of using up all the fatty delicious things in your pantry before the Lenten fast begins. 

In many Portugese, Spanish, and Italian-speaking countries it is known as Carnevale, from the Latin, carnevale. It means putting away the meat or flesh. This is actually where we get our English word for carnival, even though the point of carnival isn’t a great party but is instead one final night of eating meat before the Lenten fast begins and you put the meat away.  

In the Episcopal Church, to my everlasting dismay, we do not feast on delicious yeasty donuts or enjoy some great meat before going vegetarian. No, we eat pancakes—a food so aptly described once by Mitch Hedberg, who said of doing comedy, “You can’t be like pancakes, all exciting at first but by the end you’re sick of them.” 

Still, cooking pancakes is another way to use up those eggs, all that butter milk, and sugar before the fast of Lent begins. We try to make it a little more fun at my own parish, St. John’s Episcopal, by bringing in some of the Carnivale traditions of our Latinx members along with turning it into a karaoke night.. and generally someone does bring some pączki for me.

Yes, after all of that—particularly the karaoke—we are all ready to begin repenting on Lent when Ash Wednesday comes. 

But that’s actually the point of the last Tuesday before Lent, it’s not really so mubh about the partying as it is about the preparing. One of the oldest descriptions of this day comes from Ælfric of Eynsham who lived at the turn of the first century. He wrote, “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do.” 

That word, shrive, is the Old English word receiving the sacrament of reconciliation. That is, to be shriven is to confess your sins to God and then to have a priest pronounce God’s absolution over you. This Old English word is why my own Anglican tradition calls this day Shrove Tuesday, the day we’re forgiven.

So, the final Tuesday before Lent is not really a day to make all kinds of mistakes, to get all your sinning out before Lent begins. Rather, the final Tuesday before Lent is meant to be a day of preparation for the Lenten fast, a day when you intentionally get rid of some of the delights of this world (including by enjoying them a bit!), but you do that so that you can enter into Lent the following day with less temptation around you. 

As you approach this coming Tuesday, no matter your own tradition, perhaps consider that. Consider what things in your life you need to get rid of, what things you need to pull away, in order truly to walk close to Jesus during Lent. Maybe even go to your priest or pastor—or even just a trusted sibling in Christ—and get that nagging sin off of your chest so that you can focus on what Lent truly is about: getting closer to Jesus.

But that question—what Lent and Ash Wednesday are truly about, I’ll leave for next week’s edition.

Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today. 

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