He Is Risen, so I Am Shriven

Recovering the meaning of Shrove Tuesday—and filling up on pancakes.
He Is Risen, so I Am Shriven
Image: Rudy Eng / Flickr

Can eating pancakes enrich Christian piety? As a part of the traditional celebration of Shrove Tuesday, I believe flapjacks can build our faith.

For those of us who love Jesus and Aunt Jemima, this is very good news.

Shrove Tuesday is essentially the British take on Mardi Gras or Carnival. But instead of flamboyant parties filled with riotous excess, the understated British gather calmly in their homes on the day before Lent to fill themselves with pancakes.

Why pancakes? In medieval Europe, Christians often gave up eating rich foods like meat, eggs, and milk for the 40-day period of penance, prayer, and preparation leading to Easter. The practice and duration of the ritual corresponded to Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert.

During Lent, perishable goods would spoil, so pancakes—traditionally just eggs and milk mixed with flour—were the ideal meal for consuming Lenten no-no foods.

But Shrove Tuesday wasn’t just about cleaning out the kitchen. It was also about cleaning out the heart. Shrove is the past tense of shrive, which means to confess sins and to have sins absolved.

Priests would ring shriving bells to call pancake-laden parishioners to church to confess their sins—perhaps starting with their gluttony!

During the Reformation, many Protestants, especially my English Puritan ancestors, dismissed Lent and Shrove Tuesday as superstitious Catholic observances aimed at earning God’s favor through human works. Thus, strict Lenten observance declined among English-speaking people.

But the palate proved mightier than the Puritans. Most Britons didn’t want to give up pancakes—even if, without an austere Lent, there wasn’t any real reason to use up ...

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