Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. Isaiah 58:1-12
I Corinthians 11:20-22, 33
This coming Tuesday is called Shrove Tuesday. Sometimes it is called Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.
The New Orleans festival of Mardi Gras is world famous. It is the day of the big splurge. It is the day to be both gourmet and gourmand. The gourmet eats only the best of foods with an eye for quality. The gourmand just eats lots of food with an eye for quantity.
It is a time of carnival. The word carnival is from the word “carne” as in carnivorous. It is the word for meat. It is the celebration of eating foods that may be forbidden during the season of Lent. The carnival was the time to eat, drink and be merry. A time for parades, costumes, games and any activity that inhibitions had suppressed before. It was the feast of permission to debauchery for too many celebrants. It is the festival of excess. It was almost the permission to sin without restraint, and then you would have forty days to be sorry for it. Some have suggested that the wearing of masks and costumes would hide the identity of the revelers so they would be less identifiable and perhaps less inhibited in their actions of excess.
Some cultures had little desire for the wild goings on of a Mardi Gras or carnival. For them this day may have been called Pancake Tuesday. This was the day to eat up all the eggs and the fat which were in the house. These were things which would be given up during lent. And pancakes were a good way to eat up the eggs and the fat. It is, by the way, the reason we have Easter eggs. All the eggs not eaten over the forty days of Lent ended up being good only for games. Except the fresh ones which would be enjoyed as the first meal on Easter Sunday morning.
But its real name is “Shrove Tuesday”. The word has nothing to do with eating pancakes or meat. It comes from the word “to shrive or to be shriven.” Of course, that doesn’t help us. What does “shrive” mean? It is the act of confession and the receiving of forgiveness. On the Tuesday before lent began, those who wanted to begin Lent with a clear conscience, who wanted to take spiritual renewal seriously, started the season one day earlier, They came to their minister to confess their sins or failings, so that the pastor/priest could tailor-make what things they needed to do, or what things they need to give up during the season of lent. It was the start of giving up something for lent. But it was more than giving up something. It was an act of giving themselves afresh to God.
Consumers & Communicants
It is interesting to note the great contrasts in the use of that Tuesday. Some became consumers. Eating everything they could. Tasting of every pleasure, whether forbidden or allowed. These consumers went kicking and scratching into Lent, lamenting that eggs and meat would be withdrawn. They went into Lent lamenting the fact that they would have to do without some delicacies. They were so afraid they would die of meat deprivation, that they stocked up the day ahead hopefully so they could go for forty days and forty nights on the virtue of that one big meal.
And while these were consuming, others came seeking communion with God. They came to confess their failings. They came sensing their weakness. They came wanting a conscience clear and their sins forgiven. They came to eat and drink with the people of God in the presence of God. They came to share in the service of holy communion.
These people came eagerly to the season. They could have waited until tomorrow, but some were saying “Why wait for Spring, do it now.” And looking forward to the possibilities of grace they came to church on Shrove Tuesday to get a good head start.
Then on Ash Wednesday they were ready to take up their cross and follow Christ. Willing to pray against temptation as he did for 40 days. Willing to fast and pray as Jesus their Lord did for 40 days.
But the forty days had another significance. It was the long practice of the church to baptize new Christians on Easter Sunday. The church asked all new Christians to prepare themselves for this great event by taking the forty days before Easter for prayer and fasting. Then others who had been Christians for some time, felt the need to renew their own vows to deny themselves, to take up their cross afresh and to reaffirm their intent to follow Christ.
Conclusions & Communion
There is a choice before each of us too. We can maintain our primary identity as consumers. Or we can be identified as Communicants.
There is something in me that resents being called a consumer. The government’s immigration policy is being defended by some who say, “but this brings 250,000 new consumers into Canada each year.” I have no problem with the numbers. I do have trouble with the idea of their being consumers, their primary value to Canada. When journalists or the marketplace call us consumers instead of citizens, I resent being so mislabeled. It is true that I do consume. But that is not my primary identity. Part of our global difficulty is that we in the West consume far too much of this world’s resources. We have become devourers of the world’s wealth. And perhaps one of the values of Lent is to urge us to consume less of the resources of this planet, to give it a chance to heal. Perhaps one of the values of Lent is to consume less so that others can sit at a table to get a fair share.
I do not want to be a consumer. But I do want to be a communicant. It is of interest to note that when we take communion, the bread we eat and the wine we drink are in such small quantities that no hunger or thirst of our bodies can be satisfied by these elements. They are so miniscule that no physical appetite can be satiated by them.
There is an interesting account that Paul writes about to the Christians in Corinth
(I Corinthians 11:20-22, 33) Some have been coming early to the communion services where the quantity of food was greater than it is today. And some were drinking so much wine they were getting drunk, and eating so much of the food that they were depriving others. And Paul says to them, “If you are hungry, eat at home.” They had become consumers at the Communion table and were missing the entire significance of communion with God. They wanted their bellies filled instead of their hearts. Instead of finding the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of their lives by the presence of God, they found themselves adding sin to sin.
As we begin the Lenten season, it would be good if we said “no” to self-indulgence, “no” to consumerism, and “yes” to God’s desire for us to enter into these seven weeks of spiritual renewal. Let’s do it!