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Traditions that get us ready for Lent

By Father Woods

There are many names and traditions associated with the beginning of Lent, perhaps it’s a good idea to remind ourselves what these things really mean:

Shrove Tuesday: At one time in the Church’s history Catholics would go to Confession on the day before Lent began. The priest would impose a penance (a shrive) that would then be done for the entire forty days of Lent. In some traditions absolution would be given by the Bishop on Holy Thursday before the rites of the Triduum began. This is the origin of our current practice of embracing voluntary penances during Lent. (The word shrive/shriven persists today in the expression giving someone short shrift meaning we pay little attention to one’s excuses or problems.

Carnival: literally “farewell to meat.” In many cultures this has become a celebration, sometimes extended and having nothing to do with spiritual realities, that highlights the last unrestricted dating before the Lenten discipline begins. Traditionally in addition to the dietary restrictions, other forms of celebration were forbidden during Lent, especially weddings, dancing, parties, and instrumental music.

Mardi Gras: French for “Fat Tuesday.” This title often has a double meaning. For some it refers to the last day to eat sweets and large quantities of food before the discipline of fasting and abstinence begins.  For others, the name is attached to the practice of ridding the kitchen of animal fat before the Lenten abstinence from meat began.

Why pancakes? Remember that in former days the regulations regarding Lenten fasting and abstinence were much more stringent than they are today. In many places both Wednesday and Friday were days of penance. In addition to meat, dairy products were given up on days of abstinence as well (a practice still maintained by many Orthodox Christians). Add to this the lack of refrigeration, the day before Ash Wednesday became a time to use up the things that either couldn’t be eaten before Ash Wednesday or would spoil before Thursday. That prompted people to mix all their meat fats with butter, eggs, milk (and some flour) resulting in pancakes!

Where do the ashes for Ash Wednesday come from? The ashes we use on Ash Wednesday are the burned palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday observance. Since may parishes don’t have much palm left over (and it takes a large amount of palm to make even a small amount of ashes, believe it or not) most parishes purchase ashes from the same place we obtain our annual palms.

*Note: because blessed ashes are a sacramental they are not intended to be “wiped off” after Mass, but should be worn as an outward sign throughout Ash Wednesday.
Is chicken “meat”? The meat of all warm-blooded animals is forbidden on days of abstinence (Ash Wednesday and all  the Fridays of  Lent.)   This includes all  beef and poultry.   Eggs, milk  products,  and condiments made from meat may be eaten. Fish and all cold-blooded animals may be eaten, for example frogs, clams, and turtles. (Pull out all those good ole turtle recipes for the Fridays of Lent this year!)