When I was a kid, my siblings and I always felt short-changed on Fat Tuesday. Lent loomed on the horizon, with no sweets for forty days until we got a motherlode of chocolate eggs for Easter. It seemed like we should be able to pig out on Fat Tuesday, since, obviously, it was our last chance and we needed to make up for all the sacrificing we were going to do. But my mother never made a big deal of Fat Tuesday. She said that it would detract from the whole purpose of Lent brazenly to commit gluttony the day before. She was absolutely right, of course.
Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, or whatever you call it, has largely turned into a festival of excess. But it used to serve a very practical, even economical and worthy purpose. Today, most Catholics follow the guidelines set forth in the most recent revision of Canon Law, and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, all other Fridays in Lent … and that’s it. But it makes very little sense to eat a giant feast on Fat Tuesday when you are just going to eat it again that next Thursday. Our ancestors, on the other hand, preparing their homes for Lent, had to finish the last of their meat by that date. They were not going to eat it again (even on Sundays) until Easter. This is also where the idea of eating pancakes on Fat Tuesday comes from, since they were using up their milk, butter, and eggs, traditionally given up during Lent as well.
I have always found Lent difficult, and not in a good way. I procrastinate on deciding what little luxury I am going to give up, and I always end up sacrificing something that I either really do not eat that often (like sweets) or that I really should not be eating anyway (oh, sweets again). Lent, then, feels like a sacrifice in name only, or a healthy diet that I should still keep after Lent is over. In other words, Lent becomes a New Year’s Resolution instead of a solemn, liturgical fast. And thus, Fat Tuesday, with its pointless excess, has always been an excess that I am better off foregoing.
The first time that I felt like Lent really worked for me was when my husband introduced me to the Eastern practice for Lent. While the Roman Canon was revised in the early twentieth century to describe the minimum requirements of Lent, the Eastern Canons still describe the “ideal” practice that we Romans also traditionally understood as Lent until very recently. Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians do not have only one day like our Fat Tuesday. Instead, they have “meatfare Sunday,” followed the next week by “cheesefare Sunday,” before Lent finally begins. The purpose of these Sundays is the same as that of our traditional Fat Tuesday: all the family’s store of meat and dairy must be gone by then.
Switching from giving up meat once a week and struggling to come up with some other forbidden item, to a dedicated forty days without any meat or dairy, transformed Lent from a lame diet into a liturgically-minded lifestyle. You have to alter everything—how you shop, how you plan meals, how you cook, how you eat. Lent is, then, always on your mind, whether you are pushing a grocery cart around Costco or planning your daughter’s birthday dinner. Lent is no longer once a week plus that one luxury item that you gave up for forty days. It is your whole day, your whole week, your whole month. Altering your food habits so thoroughly fosters a greater mindfulness of the liturgical season. When families observe Lent like this together, instead of a mash of individual, different sacrifices, you get a community fully engaged in the season, because you have invited Lent into your home. Two millennia of Christian tradition proves to be a very useful and wise method of uniting you to our suffering Savior. And you do not have to quit being a Western Christian to have this sort of Lent. It is, after all, part of the Roman tradition, too.
I should point out that small children, the sick, pregnant women, and the elderly are, as they always have been, exempted from the full rigors of Lent. The traditional Lent, properly understood, has never been about damaging bodies but about elevating souls. When my husband and I sit down to coconut curried lentils, our two year old has a side of chicken nuggets and a glass of milk.
Our medieval ancestors had many helpful elements of practice that we lack which tied the liturgical calendar to daily life and united the secular and the sacred. One of my favorite paintings is Jean-François Millet’s “L’Angelus,” in which two farmers pause in their field to pray the Angelus at the sound of the noon bells. Medieval poetry beautifully describes how the first harvest of wheat was liturgically minded, as it was donated to the local church to make into the Eucharist. Of course, we should not view the past overly nostalgically and assume that abuses and impiety did not affect them. Fat Tuesday, based on some of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings, sometimes became a festival of excess for them, too. Human nature is human nature. However, in our modern world, many of these intersections of daily life and liturgical life have been drowned out by noise or antiquated by a radically altered economy. Often, we have to go outside of the usual in order to find the Sacred. But Lent remains a perfect opportunity to pin your daily life to the liturgical calendar, even if society at large is not doing it with you.
While I do not know the exact reasons for changing the rules about Lenten fasting in Roman Canon Law, I am sure that it was to emphasize the reality that those faithful were not sinning who could not, for good reasons, follow the traditional rigors of Lent. However, too often these days we Catholics end up following the minimum requirements as if they were the ideal practice, and end up missing out on the spirit of the season. Perhaps this year, we should resurrect the old custom of Shrove Tuesday and prepare our homes as well as our hearts for the upcoming season by saying farewell to the foods of ordinary time and commit every day to living Lent. I promise that you will find it a transformative experience.