A Brief History of
Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the last day of what was once called “Shrovetide,” originally a three-day period before the beginning of Lent. Eventually, the previous Thursday through Saturday was added to make a full week.
The word “shrove,” is from the Anglo-Saxon “to write down,” or “prescribe,” as in to prescribe a particular penance after confession. Shrovetide itself is the English equivalent of what became known in the greater part of Southern Europe, and eventually the Americas, as the “Carnival.” Strangely enough, this word, in spite of wild activities to the contrary, is derived from the Latin term for “taking away of the flesh” (carneum levare). The original idea was that during the week immediately before Lent everyone would go to his priest and confess his sins, and the priest would in turn prescribe or “shrive” what he needs to do in the way of penance during the upcoming Lenten season. Most of the time this meant depriving, or “taking away” some pleasure of the flesh.
Human nature being what it is, it is understandable that prior to a long period of going without a fleshly enjoyment of some kind, people allow themselves somewhat exceptional freedom in the way of festivity. Thus, this period has come to be known for great excesses in sin and vice of all kinds. In France and Latin countries it is called “Mardi gras” and in Germany “fetter Dienstag.”
The English custom of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday came from the need of using up all eggs and fat or oil, which were originally prohibited in the Christian’s diet during the forty days of Lent. This also partially accounts for the association of eggs with the Resurrection festival at the end of Lent.
Although the observance of Shrovetide in England never ran to the wild excesses which often mark this period in southern countries today, still various sports and games were common in almost all parts of the country. In the homes of the rich and powerful it was customary to celebrate the evening of Shrove Tuesday by the performance of plays, or to hold masquerade balls. And we learn from contemporary writers that the day was almost everywhere observed as a holiday, and many kinds of pranks and foolishness were tolerated or winked at in the schools and colleges.
Today, Shrove Tuesday has all but disappeared from Christian practice, while at the same time, sad to say, the wild mutation of Carnival has taken hold and indeed run amok. If I might make a small suggestion: The observance of Shrove Tuesday with a pancake supper and an evening devotion would be a small way of paying homage to our Christian forbearers and setting our sights properly on the coming remembrance of the Passion of our Lord.
Blessings and Peace!
The Wednesday before the first Sunday in Lent marks the beginning of this season of the Church Year. Lent is the Christian’s forty-day journey with the Lord to the cross and tomb, preparing for the joyous celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. The forty days are reminiscent of several biblical events: Moses’ stay on Mt. Sinai at the giving of the law, Elijah’s fast on his way to the mountain of God, and Jesus’ forty-day fast at the beginning of His ministry, among others. The forty days are counted backward from Resurrection Sunday. Since all regular Sunday worship services are an observance of Christ’s resurrection, and thus occasions for reverent joy, the Sundays during this period are not counted in the forty days of more somber remembrance of Christ’s Passion. This also explains why this season begins on a Wednesday.
In addition, for more than nineteen centuries the Christian believer’s Lenten journey has begun with a reminder of our mortality and a call to repentance through the placing of ashes on one’s head (Genesis 18:27, Job 42:6, Jeremiah 6:26, Matthew 11:21). Ashes are a sign of spiritual cleansing, as in the Rite of the Red Heifer (Numbers 19:17), in which the ashes of the calf, when mixed with water, had the ceremonial effect of purifying the sinner. (Hebrews 9:13). Thus, the first New Testament believers adopted the use of ashes as a symbol of sorrow and repentance over sin. This has been the normal practice of the Christian Church from the First Century onward.
It is this ancient practice of placing ashes on the heads of the faithful that gives Ash Wednesday its name. The ashes are a strong reminder of the need for God’s mercy, forgiveness, and the redeeming grace of Christ. Indeed, we remember well the words from the Christian burial service: “. . . earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust . . . ;” words that will someday be spoken over us all.
The imposition of ashes has never been an exclusive practice of the Roman church. It was already being practiced hundreds of years before the church of Rome gained its current prominence. Today it is observed by faithful Believers in many Christian churches throughout the world. Thus, Trinity Orthodox Lutheran Church in Sierra Vista has incorporated the practice of “The Imposition of Ashes” into its observance of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent.
The ashes for this ceremony are taken from the palm branches of the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. These palms are gathered, burned, and then sifted, and placed in a shallow dish for the imposition. After a brief introduction, the minister marks a cross of ashes on each person’s forehead as they stand or kneel at the entrance to the church’s altar area.
At 6 AM on Ash Wednesday, during the Noon hour, and again that evening, about fifteen minutes before the Communion Service, people are invited to the Sanctuary for the Imposition of Ashes.
This ceremony is intended as a meaningful and useful physical aid in each individual believer’s spiritual preparation for and observance of Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent, Holy Week, and ultimately the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. If there are any questions about The Imposition of Ashes, please do not hesitate to ask.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
Your shepherd under Christ,