Shrove Tuesday

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Shrove Tuesday is the holy day that got away. 
During the Middle Ages, it was a solemn day of preparation.  On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday – the traditional beginning of the season of Lent – churchgoers would shrive.  That means they would confess their sins to a priest, readying themselves for the 40-day journey of self-examination and self-denial that would culminate on Easter Sunday.
Shrove is the past tense of shrive.  So this special day, loosely translated, means “I’ve-now-confessed-my-sins-so-I’m-ready-for-Lent” Tuesday.  
Human nature being what it is, however, Shrove Tuesday gradually morphed into a “last blast” party before the start of Lent.  In the French-speaking world it became Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”), while Italian-speaking realms dubbed it Carnevale (“the removal of meat”).  Since eggs, sugar, butter and meats (except for fish) were typically forbidden during Lent, Shrove Tuesday became an annual opportunity to feast on whatever goodies were left over in the pantry.  In many households, the traditional pig-out food for this day is pancakes. 
Medieval church authorities, in general, were anxious about the possibility of God’s people getting into trouble.  It seemed wise to impose restrictions. 
Some of the more conservative scholars, for instance, believed that married couples ought to enjoy sex throughout the year – just not very often.  They declared that intimacy was off-limits during Lent, Advent (roughly the four weeks before Christmas), the eight days after both Easter and Pentecost, every holy day and feast day, and every day before those days.  Sex was furthermore prohibited on Wednesdays (in order to remember Ash Wednesday), Thursdays (because that was the day of Christ’s arrest), Fridays (in order to honor Jesus’ Good Friday death), Saturdays (in honor of the Virgin Mary), and Sundays (in order to commemorate the resurrection). 
The historian John Boswell estimated that when the numbers had been tallied and all of the special considerations had been made, couples could look forward to marital intimacy on something like 44 days each year.  Just in case you’re wondering, today is not one of them! 
Fortunately, most ordinary people simply ignored such edicts. 
Their response highlighted an ongoing tension within Christendom.  Should the Jesus-following life be characterized as one of restriction and self-denial, or celebration and self-expression?  On the rising tide of Western modernity, the second alternative gradually became dominant.  Holy days became holidays.  Carnevale became Carnival.  More than a few of the people attending today’s Mardi Gras bash in New Orleans would probably be surprised to learn these 24 hours used to be reserved for personal spiritual introspection. 
So how do we find a balance between appropriate sorrow for our less-than-perfect lives, and appropriate gladness that God will always remain our gracious heavenly Father? 
We can find a clue by going back some 2500 years to the time of Nehemiah and Ezra.  Those two leaders stepped up to help the people of Israel navigate a particularly perilous chapter of Old Testament history. 
A “faithful remnant” of Jews – battered, impoverished, yet hopeful – had returned from exile in Babylon to the ruins of Jerusalem and the Temple.  Nehemiah the governor led the hard work of rebuilding the city walls.  That promised physical security.  Ezra the priest led a revival of attentiveness to God’s Law.  That promised spiritual security.
Their efforts culminate in Nehemiah chapter eight, where Ezra presides over an open-air gathering of all the people.  As he reads the provisions of the Torah, the people begin to grasp how far away they are – personally and nationally – from God’s intentions for their lives.  They weep aloud. 
Then something interesting happens.  Instead of affirming these corporate wails of regret, the leaders tell the people to stop crying.
Nehemiah speaks words we would hardly expect to hear in the midst of spiritual sorrow.  “Go home, everyone, and prepare a feast – holiday food and drink.  And share it with those who don’t have anything.  This day is holy to God.  So don’t feel bad” (Nehemiah 8:10, paraphrased).  Nehemiah redefines what a “holy day” really is.  Instead of a time to crash inward upon ourselves, it’s an opportunity to celebrate the goodness of God and to pass that goodness on to others.
Then he declares why this must be so: “For the joy of the Lord is your strength!”
Should we commit ourselves on a regular basis to doing fearless personal inventories of where we stand before God?  Should we feel stabs of grief that we fall so far short of the promises we have made to the One who loves us?  Should we take specific steps to return to the path that Jesus is always blazing ahead of us?
The answer to all three of these questions is Yes, absolutely.
But we must always do so with hearts enlivened by joy, not deadened by fear.
As you prepare for the arrival of Lent, may you know once again that the joy of the Lord is your strength.
And that a towering stack of pancakes just might be the perfect way to celebrate your Shrove Tuesday.