Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How Should Christians Celebrate Mardi Gras?

In the church of my childhood, a church could count on its members gathering whenever the church doors were open.  Thus we had Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers and Wednesday Bible study meetings and groups of all sorts gathering throughout the week.

These days, most mainline churches feel lucky if members come on Sunday, much less at other points in the week.  Many churches have Confirmation classes during Sunday School time, unlike my experience of trooping back to church in the late afternoon of a Sunday.  Many churches do the whole Holy Week journey on Palm Sunday because they know that church members won't be coming back on Thursday and Friday.

How does your church celebrate Mardi Gras?  Do you offer an alternate celebration for those who want festivity but not drunkeness?  Does your church do the traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake supper?

Many Christians might be amazed to find out that Mardi Gras has its roots as a Christian holiday.  In medieval times, most Christians would give up all sorts of luxury items for Lent, luxury items like milk, eggs, and alcohol.  So just before Lent came the using up of the luxury items because you wouldn't just throw them away.  Hence the special Mardi Gras breads and treats and the drinking.

You might ask, "And Shrove Tuesday?  What's that about?  And I seem to remember hearing about Carnival down in Rio?"

Mardi Gras and Carnival, holidays that come to us out of predominantly Catholic countries, certainly have a more festive air than Shrove Tuesday, which comes to us from some of the more dour traditions of England. The word shrove, which is the past tense of the verb to shrive, which means to seek absolution for sins through confession and penance, is far less festive than the Catholic terms for this day.

How did Shrove Tuesday come to be associated with pancakes?  I imagine that it's an attempt to rid the pantry of eggs, butter, and milk.  Or maybe it developed much later.  Maybe it's just a fun reason for fundraising in American churches at the middle of the 20th century.

In past years, I've made pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and eaten them alone, at my kitchen table. It just isn't the same. And it's sort of a pointless exercise.  My memory of Shrove Tuesday is less about the pancakes than about the gathering of a community.

Likewise, I wonder if we do better with our Lenten disciplines if we're part of a community.

During Lent, I have been more successful with adding a discipline, like devotional reading or more prayer or journaling, than I have been with giving something up.  I'll be praying for all of you who are giving up alcohol or chocolate; according to my unofficial polling, those are the items that people give up most commonly.

This year, I'm not sure that I'm doing a discipline, although I'm open to the process should it arise.  I've been rather taken with photography lately.  Do I want to impose a discipline upon myself or simply continue to explore the world with a camera?  Stay tuned!

For those of you wanting to bake a special Mardi Gras bread, go to this post on my creativity blog:  a relatively healthy yeast bread that requires no kneading.  Even if you're the only one eating it, it's much more festive than eating Shrove Tuesday pancakes alone.

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