Are you ready for Shrovetide?
Yes, Lent is still about two weeks away and our churches remain decorated in the green of Ordinary Time. No purple in sight.
But Lent is coming. Mardi Gras parades began Friday, Feb. 6, in New Orleans. Before 1969, we would have already been in the midst of Shrovetide.
Shrovetide was a type of pre-Lent. It was when people began to put things in order for the penitential season leading to Easter. People didn’t exactly fast, but they did start thinking about it. Since meat was forbidden all during Lent, what was stored up was eaten now. Since eggs and butter weren’t part of Lent either, they were used up in this pre-Lent — often in the form of pancakes. (Which explains why Mardi Gras is also Pancake Day.)
Vestments of Shrovetide were purple and the Alleluia was not used before the Gospel. It was also a time for more confessions. The English word “shrive” is based on a proto-Germanic word, skriban, means “to absolve” or “to write,” maybe as in rewriting one’s life. That’s what “shrove” means — to confess and be absolved, wiping the slate clean.
Other pre-Lent preparations included parties and fancy foods eaten in the shadow of the approaching fast. From these preparations, the “carnival’ season (a word referring to meat (carne) and actually meaning “farewell to meat”) and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) developed. Pre-Lent was also a time for parties and masked balls.
All these preparations let people “clear out things” that might present them from settling down into the 40 days of prayer and waiting.
The three Sundays of Shrovetide had names to remind people of the approach of Lent: for example, this Sunday, Feb. 8, would have been “Sexagesima Sunday.” Sexagesima Sunday means it is “60 days” before the end of Lent (which technically ends before the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday).
In Eastern Orthodox churches, the Sunday that falls 63 days before Easter is “Prodigal Son Sunday.” In these churches, this is the last Sunday (other days are OK) on which the laity can eat meat or meat products until Easter. In the Byzantine Catholic Church, abstaining from meat also begins gradually — with no meat eaten on Wednesdays and Fridays following “Prodigal Son Sunday.”
For us, this Sunday readings tell us about Job, bemoaning the sorrows of his life on one hand and, on the other, the psalm response reminds us that the Lord “heals the broken-hearted.” So the readings this week remind us both of the approaching shadows of Lent and of the glorious promise of Easter (and the return of rich, good food).
While most of us will be thinking about pink and red Valentines in the next week, it isn’t a bad time to also think about clearing out parts of our lives — shriving some things — in preparation for Ash Wednesday.
Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of two books: “Linking Your Beads: The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers” and “Making Sense of Saints.”