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Shrove Tuesday: Pancake or confession?

IMAGINE a woman wearing an apron and holding a frying pan containing a hot pancake running up the pathway leading to the sanctuary in your church compound. Besides frowns and amusement, you may be baffled when the woman begins her confession of sins.

Pure imagination and speculation in a time when we are required to observe the 40 days of Lent?

In reality, there is a tradition that goes back to Olney at Buckinghamshire in 1445. A woman who was late for the shriving service ran through the streets, carrying a skillet of pancakes before Lent began. Unintentionally, she started a tradition for the Pancake Day Race in the town.

The race has become part of the celebration for “Shrove Tuesday”, which is the day of preparation for Lent and takes place on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent).

The name Shrove is derived from the old word “shrive” which means to confess. Shrovetide is an English term that carries a religious idea that is associated with the “taking away of flesh” that marked the beginning of Lent. Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras in France, which means Fat Tuesday.

Having a pancake feast on that day is due to the fact that lard, butter and eggs are forbidden during Lent and the feast is a sensitive preparation before one enters into a long period of reading of Scriptures, meditations, partaking of simple meals and prayers,

But why bother to bring up a traditional practice or celebration that appears meaningless to our contemporary society that finds burger more appealing than pancake?

Christians living in a cosmopolitan society are shaped by subtexts of capitalism and technology, and are constantly looking out for more fashionable ideas and updated strategies to make our churches vibrant and forward looking. Resistance to church tradition is built, which is characterised by their assignment of negative connotations of the archaic, dead and irrelevant to the language of tradition.

Is there meaning after all when we look back at our Christian tradition and practices?

Laceye Warner rightly reminded us that an “embodiment of our faith in practice enables Christian community to remember the acts of faith of our forebears for the purpose of receiving encouragement, nurture and reproof for our current lives of faith”. Shrove Tuesday may appear irrelevant to some but it does possess that spiritual force that reminded us of our Christian responsibility.

As a preparation for Lent, the practice emphasises the importance of Christians to review their life and commitment to Christ. Lent is an invitation for us to take a break along the spiritual pilgrimage, refresh and recharge ourselves, and embark again on the journey from death to life.

This Lenten journey is not an individual journey or an annual pilgrimage for it unfolds the meaning of the church as a baptised community.

There is a demand for an intensive period of prayer, searching the Scriptures and seeking of self-renewal as disciple of Christ. The discipline of prayer and reading of Scripture helps those seeking baptism and the congregation to realise the “God within” and meaning to the paradox of death and resurrection of Christ.

Our Christian practices are important for they provide the “traditioning” of the beliefs into the confessional faith. This traditioning (1 Corinthians 15:3) not only involves a verbal proclamation of faith, but also assists believers in articulating this faith through participation and integration into the communities of faith.

The traditional Shrove Tuesday celebration is an opportunity for both fun and confession as the people of God. As part of the preparation for the great celebration of Easter, this traditional practice provides the mutual encouragement as well as reproof for our Christian discipleship.

While the spiritual dimension of this practice is understandable, one must remember the important words of Jerome Robbins: “the audience should be told what that tradition is”. The point here is not about the returning to a particular practice. Rather, it is a reminder that one would rediscover the meaning of our tradition.

What is really crucial in making tradition alive today is a willingness of the church to transmit a constitutive element of tradition. An injection of vibrancy requires a full understanding of what one is practising in the church. There is a need to help those who are struggling to rediscover the meaning and integrity within our Christian tradition.

A tradition is linked to the past and knowledge of that tradition provides the necessary preparation for the present generation. It is a challenge for both the church and the Christian family to allow the continuity of tradition to shape our thinking, enhance our confession and educate our future generation.

The definition of a living tradition is, according to the words of Edmund Burke, “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” (J. Pelikan, The Vindication of tradition, 20).

Chan Yew Ming is a lecturer at Trinity Theological College. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.