The Season of Lent, Shrove or “Fat” Tuesday, and Ash Wednesday are interconnected and it helps us to understand them together.
The church is about to enter the liturgical season of Lent, a time set aside in the church calendar for self-reflection, fasting, and repentance in preparation for Easter. What began as a few days of fasting prior to Easter grew into a fast of forty days, in imitation of Christ's fasting in the wilderness. The forty-day fast was especially important for converts to the faith who were preparing for Baptism, and for those guilty of “notorious sins” who were being restored to the Christian assembly.
The 40 days of Lent extend from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday (the day before Easter), omitting Sundays because every Sunday is a feast day. The last three days of Lent are the “sacred Triduum” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
Today Lent has reacquired its significance as the final preparation of adult candidates for baptism. Joining with them, all Christians are invited "to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word" (BCP, p. 265).
Shrove or “Fat” Tuesday
Shrove Tuesday is celebrated in many cultures. It’s become a special day of wild celebration before the relatively calm, penitential and reflective season of Lent. The tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday came from the practice of using up all the fats in the house which were not to be enjoyed during Lent.
Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras or Carnival in other places in the world. But the word Shrove is derived from the archaic English word, “shrive” which means, “to confess one’s sins.” Indeed, Lent is a time when many Christians make their confession, and many prefer to do so before Lent begins. So it became Shrove Tuesday.
The tradition of celebrating Ash Wednesday began around 600 AD. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a time of fasting and repentance. Those practices are intended to lead to renewal and new beginnings at Easter.
The use of ashes symbolizes our humility and repentance while bringing to mind the passage: “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19) It has roots in the Hebrew traditions where sackcloth and ashes were signs of mourning and repentance.
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from burning the palms used in previous Palm Sunday services. On Palm Sunday, we use the palms as a sign of our acceptance that Jesus is King. The burning of the palms and application of the ashes can be seen as symbolic of our failure to truly accept and follow Jesus as King.
We do not dwell in ashes for long. The season of Lent leads to the new dawn of Easter and then to the fire of Pentecost. Our liturgical calendar is how we tell our story, and our story moves from ashes to fire!