Today is Shrove Tuesday. You probably also know it as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. The fact that these two names can apply to the same day might surprise you. Shrove Tuesday comes from the verb, “to shrive,” that is, to confess. The weeks immediately preceding Lent, known historically as Shrovetide, were a time for the faithful to recollect, to soberly recall their sins, to confess those sins, and to receive absolution, all in preparation for the penitence of Lent. Fat Tuesday, on the other hand, calls to mind rich food and drink; we can think of pancakes or Carnival or a more general disposition toward partying hard. These two ideas seem to go together like water and oil. But to understand why they’re linked, it’s helpful to think back to where we’ve been in this past liturgical season. The day of Epiphany, and the weeks that follow, are full of revelation and celebration. The light of the star over Bethlehem, the Presentation of the infant Jesus to the Temple, Jesus turning water into wine, and just this Sunday, Christ’s Transfiguration. “In your light we see light,” the psalmist writes, and indeed, these weeks of light offer revelation and celebration to the world.
But maybe more evocative of this time between Epiphany and Lent than any other holy day is the Baptism of Christ, by John in the Jordan River. There are several reasons why. Perhaps most clearly, it is Christ’s Baptism that immediately precedes his 40-day fast in the wilderness. But more than that, as Jesus recounts in today’s Gospel lesson, the faithful came to the river and received the baptism of John, that is, a baptism of repentance, and in doing so, came to understand the justice of God, and received it with praise. They entered into repentance and found the joy of the kingdom of Heaven, the joy of Christ. They went in following John, the strenuous fasting prophet, and came out with the understanding that this sober-minded repentance pointed toward Jesus, the one who comes eating and drinking, celebrating with his friends as a bridegroom celebrates with his wedding guests.
As it turns out, what we glean from the witness of Scripture and the Church is that repentance is no counterpoint to joy. They are not distant ends of a long spectrum. What we might begin to see is that, in repentance, we have our joy. In our sober-minded reflection, we drink from God’s river of delights, taster the better wine, and find ourselves drunk with love. In the fasting of the prophet, we find ourselves being pointed to the feasting of the Christ. Psalm 36 mentions the righteous feasting on the abundance of God’s house. Perhaps the King James Version might drive home the point a bit further: “They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures.”
I have seen many explain the festival character of the days before Lent as, essentially, a concession to human weakness, or worse yet, a period of sin and excess to “get it out of our system,” before the fast of Lent. This thinking is a dual poison; it first offers the idea that holiness is a sort of part-time job, rather than the vocation of all Christians, and then adds insult to injury, by suggesting that celebration, feasting and joy are somehow counter to holiness. They are not. They are fundamental to holiness, and thus a necessary part of the vocation of every Christian. To deny this is to jeer Christ: “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” But Wisdom will teach us, her children, otherwise.
We find ourselves resting by the rivers of Christ’s baptism, enjoying the delights of God. The riverbanks roll and slope, like the gentle curves of a lover. The leaves of the trees sway in breezes of whispered alleluias. Fruit grows plump with juices that run down the beard like fine oil. Flowers open their petals, and the aroma jars ancient ancestral memories of a Paradise that was ours, once, long ago. It is lovely.
But we leave tomorrow. So eat. Drink. Like Christ himself, enjoy the fatness of God’s house, and imbibe from the river of his delights. This is not the act of a glutton or a drunkard, irrationally consuming out of fear. It is the wise and sober recognition of the holiness of God, and the bounty he offers us. Eat. Drink. The desert road is long, and dry, and barren, and we have been given the lushness of the river, the joy of repentance, to sustain us in the coming dryness. Today, God offers us repentance, and so offers us absolution, and so offers us one final night of feast. Alleluia.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.