It goes by many names.
Carnival. Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras (French for, you guessed it, “Fat Tuesday”). The day before Ash Wednesday goes by a variety of different names, but each of the names tends to express a common theme: pigging out. There are historical and practical reasons for this.
The purpose of pigging out
Historically, Lent was a time of very strict fasting. Our modern notion of “giving something up for Lent” pales in comparison. Francis X. Weiser writes, “The strict and harsh observance of ancient times…makes modern man shiver at the mere knowledge of its details.” Yikes.
Practically, then, homes needed to rid themselves of all those foods that were not to be eaten during Lent: not only meat, but also butter, cheese, eggs, and milk. (Like we say: harsh.) One really fun way to do this was to have a huge feast that uses all the banned ingredients.
The British, being a practical people, found that pancakes were the perfect vehicle for unburdening one’s household of all those aforementioned foodstuffs. An easy and delicious canvas for just about any kind of topping, pancakes have thus become in many parts of the world the appointed cuisine for this day, whose names are all understandably some variation of Fetter Dienstag (as the Germans have it).
There is one notable exception.
“Shrove Tuesday” is a more churchly title, derived from the archaic verb “to shrive”—that is, to receive confession and absolution. It was customary for Christians to attend individual confession before Lent and to receive God’s word of forgiveness. And this points to a theological rationale (in addition to the historical and practical) for the day before Lent becoming “Fat Tuesday.”
As is so often the case, Martin Luther helps us to understand this “theology of pancakes”—if in an indirect way. Luther was once writing to his friend and colleague, Philip Melanchthon. Melanchthon had a reputation for being rather punctilious in his morality, and Luther may have had the sense that his old pal was starting to lean a little too heavily on his own spiritual performance.
This is a temptation for any of us: focus too much on how much you’re not sinning, and the thought starts to creep into your mind that perhaps your own right living is the basis of your acceptance before God. And yet, this misses the essence of faith: not sin-avoidance, but Christ-reliance.
And so Martin writes Philip with words that are as compelling as they are controversial:
“If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but trust in Christ more boldly still, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”
Luther isn’t recommending that Philip rob a bank or insult his mother. His point is that we should always take Christ and his mercy much more seriously than we take ourselves and our sanctity. “[Christ] became for us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor 1.30–31).
Not saved by saintliness
Which brings me back to pancakes.
A Shrove Tuesday pancake pig-out is a simple (and delectable) way of confessing, “I’m not saved by my saintliness. I could eat only wheat germ until Jesus returns and He wouldn’t love me any more—or any less.”
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