BONUS: A Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras Meditation

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Text: Romans 7: 14-25
Title: Shriven or Fat?

When I was a kid growing up in Mount Airy, NC; I had absolutely no knowledge or experience of the church year. We had a Christmas play on the Sunday night before Christmas and Easter just kind of showed up one Sunday with no preliminaries and had more to do with Sunrise Service at the Moravian Cemetery and the Easter Egg Hunt during Sunday School and my sisters and mother having new dresses than anything else. We were not a liturgical people.

My favorite place to shop when I was a kid was the Robby’s Army/Navy Surplus store on Main Street. Most Fridays I went to town with Mama when she went to “get her hair fixed,” and went to Robby’s to look at manly men stuff and to occasionally buy a knife or a shirt or something.

Across the street from Robby’s was Trinity Episcopal Church; a tiny stone building that seated maybe 50 people and had a Fellowship Hall downstairs. Every year I was fascinated to see the sign go up in their yard advertising “Shrove Tuesday Pancake Dinner and Ash Wednesday Service” Two different days; one sign.

Nobody I knew could tell me what that was all about; not parents or teachers or even my preacher. The best anyone could do was my Baptist Deacon Grandaddy who said, “I reckon it’s the way them ‘Piskipalians has a revival and a fellowship dinner.” Close enough, I’d say, for an opinion formed out of almost complete ignorance of the subject; a technique I have inherited and exploited with children over the years.

At about the same time, I became acquainted with the New Orleans tradition of Mardi Gras, mostly through my devout Aunt Ethel; who gave me Evangelical Tracts and Paperback books for Birthday and Christmas presents until she died when I was forty. (She was still hoping I would turn my back on my obvious crypto-Catholicism and accept Jesus.)

It was in a somewhat lurid paperback description of the soul-saving work of the Rev. Bob Harrington, known to his admirers as the “Chaplain of Bourbon Street.” The only religious effect it had on me was making me consider going into the Baptist Ministry just so I could attend New Orleans Baptist Seminary.

It was only in Seminary that I began to connect the dots between Shrove Tuesday and Mardi Gras. Here’s this from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Christianity.

On the eve of Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the season of fasting, people first went to confession, to be “shriven,” hence Shrove Tuesday, and then ate pancakes, to use up the ingredients forbidden during Lent. This turned into a longer period of pre-Lent celebration, known as Carnival or Mardi Gras. P. 468

Although I admit to having a little fun with this, I don’t think it far-fetched of me to see the two different ways of observing this day as being more than a cultural difference between the repressed and dour English and Northern Europeans on the one hand and the more “party-hearty” attitude of the French and the other Mediterranean peoples on the other.

We all find it difficult to figure out how seriously to take sin; our own and that of others. We know we’re not as good as we could be; or maybe should be.

But also, most of us are unwilling to admit being as bad as some other people think we are; or conversely, as bad as we think some other people are.

No matter how we have failed our own ethical and moral standards, we are all of us more than willing to look around and say, “Well, Lord, at least I’m not as bad as that person. At least I didn’t do THAT!”

And so, we come up to Lent with two attitudes:

One is represented by being Shriven. We look at Lent as a time to grow spiritually, to pray, and read and draw closer to God. We see this time before Lent as a time of solemn contemplation and sober reflection; well represented by eating damp and tepid pancakes and half-cooked sausage on a paper plate that folds up and spills syrup on the Fellowship Hall table as you sit uncomfortably in your folding chair and sip bad coffee from a Styrofoam Cup.

The other is represented by getting FAT. By the wonderful phrase “Let the good times Roll!”
We have to go through this Lenten time of restriction and restraint, so we’d best get the partying out of our system before it starts.

To tell you the truth, I’m not exactly sure which of these represents Saint and which Sinner in Luther’s famous simul justus et peccator; saint and sinner at the same time.

What I am really clear about is that each of us is just that; saint and sinner at the same time,
each of us struggles with it; each of us seeks the good, and all too often fails; fails to see it in others or to achieve it in ourselves.

And the gospel is; God loves us anyway, yes indeed, God loves us anyway;
Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins,LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL!

Amen and amen.

2 thoughts on “BONUS: A Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras Meditation

  1. I always listen to your podcast and read some of your sermons for my preparation each week. I was scrolling through and found this sermon which caught my eye when I saw Mt. Airy, NC. I just became the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Mt. Airy moving from a small church in Pearisburg, VA. With your permission, I would like to share your sermon on Trinity’s Facebook page. Thank you for your help in my sermon prep these past few years.

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