Monday, February 16, 2015

A Holy Shrovetide, As It Should Be

In our society, the days leading up to Lent, if they are known for anything special at all, are usually associated with Mardi Gras in New Orleans or other places where excess of many kinds is practiced without regard to the true purpose of this season. The original meaning of Shrovetide is not simply about "wine, women, and song." It is connected to spiritual preparation for Lent.

To be "shriven" means to received absolution when making a confession prior to Lent. During the Middle Ages, Christians would make their pre-Lenten confession and then spend much of Lent itself doing the penance given by the confessor. This penance was meant to soften the heart and open it to God's grace poured out freely and abundantly upon the Cross, but often ignored by us in our sinfulness. By making a confession and then offering the penance, the Christian was being prepared to receive the message of Holy Week and Easter deeply, rather than merely on the heart's surface.

Today in many parishes, Shrovetide has been reduced to a Pancake Supper on the day before Ash Wednesday, but this is hardly enough to encourage a rich and holy use of this season.

In the old calendar of the Church (the one before the current 1979 Book of Common Prayer's Calendar), the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday were set apart as a pre-Lenten season of preparation. While it was true that such a pre-Lent was, in effect, a time to prepare to prepare to prepare for the three great Holy Days of Maundy Thursday-Good Friday-Holy Saturday/Easter (pre-Lent, Lent, and Holy Week up to Thursday being the three stages of preparation being referred to), there was much wisdom in this old custom. While these Sundays are now connected with Epiphany instead of Lent, the Prayer Book (and our parish) has retained some elements of this older understanding of Shrovetide.

The readings and prayers in the weeks leading up to Lent often contain thoughts about the way our sin distorts the light that we celebrate flowing from Christ into the world during the season after the Epiphany. This invites us to think about the state of our own discipleship and what shape our Lenten Journey should take so that sin and its distortions have less power in our life. Those weeks immediately prior to Ash Wednesday can be viewed as something like packing for a trip: what route should we take? what is essential to have? what must we leave behind?

The Lenten Table in the narthex has many publications and spiritual tools for this work. The Lenten Rule forms found there await our prayerful use, and a commitment form to go into the offering plate and be kept at the altar during the Lenten season accompanies it. This blog has a section dealing with Lenten devotion, as well. All of this is in aid of moving deeper into the life we have been given, the life of Christ that beckons and shines with indescribable joy, yet which we often set aside for something lesser, something promising a life that is not Life. But, this journey cannot be taken without some thought.

Yesterday the Church commemorated Christ's appearing Transfigured in the Uncreated Light of God on the Holy Mountain. The prayers, readings from scripture, and hymns were radiant and glorious, yet the Collect of the Day prayed God to "strengthen us to bear our own cross," thus joining Christ in turning our face towards Jerusalem and what must be done there. The Transfiguration was, and can never be, about capturing a holy moment in spiritual aspic: it must always point towards a fulfillment of which it is but a glorious and mysterious foretaste. We join Our Lord and his Apostles in coming down off the mountain: now the harder, more grueling part of following Christ begins.

This means that Shrovetide, while a delightful time for parties and pre-Lenten merriment, is not really about lapsing into worldly sordidness or spiritual decadence: it is about attending to those last-minute but essential errands we must make before heading out on the Lenten journey, the trip accompanying the Prodigal back to the embrace of the loving Father...a journey not so much about physical distance as the distance of the heart. It is a voyage we cannot make alone: only with God's blessing and power can we come to our hoped-for destination. To make that journey means prayer, preparation, and courage.

It is the last hours before Lent now, and the time to leave on the pilgrimage before us is soon. May this Shrovetide be a truly holy time of joyous preparation, so that we may greet Ash Wednesday not only as a fast of repentance, but a fast of joy as we set out on our way home.

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