Today is Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras— which includes a lot of strange customs for this girl who grew up in the buckle of the incredibly Protestant Bible Belt. St. Louis, although usually being as frozen at this time of year as a barrel of brass monkeys, is also strangely home to a Mardi Gras celebration marinated in the pale, midwestern version of excesses one normally only finds in New Orleans—but with added possibility of frostbite along the parade route to give the tradition that extra little kick. Laissez le bon temps rouler, indeed. I have also finally grown accustomed to the disorienting eating-of-pancakes-drowning-in-syrup in the darkness that only 6 pm in the middle of winter can bring. The sausage only partially redeems this custom for me, because breakfast belongs in the morning in my mind, and I just can’t shake it. If the point of this custom was to get rid of the sweet rich foods lying around the house, I’d as lief eat cheesecake. Say, now– there’s an idea I could really get behind.
But besides all the eating and the parading and the collecting of plastic beads that has become much of the public face of this day, usually sundered from any of its religious meaning, there’s another point. “Shrove” comes from “shrive”—an old English word that means “absolution” or “forgiveness.” It is on this day that we prepare to enter the season of Lent, and that we are encouraged to take stock of any sins we have committed, any repentance we need to make. It is also a time when many of us who attempt to observe a holy Lent are often prone to “give something up” for Lent: swearing, or drinking soda pop, or chocolate, or electronics. Some of us fast from all food or simply meat on Ash Wednesday and on Friday. The taking on of such a special discipline is meant to help us focus our priorities during the 40 days of Lent, from being reminded of our mortality on Ash Wednesday through the somberness of Holy Week, to emerge in the glorious resurrection light of Easter.
There’s a special challenge in making promises like this at this time of year. It’s cold, and no matter what the groundhog said, we know that the hope of spring can seem stubbornly distant, even with Earth at its perihelion in its wobbly orbit around the sun. Perhaps it’s another way to have a go at peeling away something unhealthy amidst the tattered remains of many a New Year’s resolution. But what if we looked at this from another angle? What if we thought of this as a chance for true repentance—a literal turning from away from one thing in hope of something better? Rather than giving up, what if we set an intention for ourselves to give in, with an emphasis on the word “give?” What if we used this Lent as a chance to give in, to look in, to lean in— to try to surrender fears, attitudes, and failures of heart that separate us from the love of God we are called to embody, to take into our very heart and soul and mind. When we surrender these things, there is then a space hollowed out in our hearts that can be filled with Christ.
At a time when life can feel as small and cool as a stone, Lent can be a time to release the heavy weight of fear that infests so much of our public and private narratives. It is no accident that the glorious reminder of the Transfiguration still dances in our mind’s eye today as we are called to repentance. So let’s take a deep breath with each other today. Seek out and welcome being shriven. Let Lent be the slow exhale that purifies and lightens, that opens the way for the risen Christ to be breathed in, to fill us when we emerge on the other side with light and life.
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She attends Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO. She is seminarian-intern at Church of the Good Shepherd , Town and Country, Missouri, in the Diocese of Missouri, and tweets daily prayers and news of note @Scoopexplainsit. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.
Image: Transfigured Light, St. Martin’s Church, Ellisville