Lent: Days Of Repentance And Self-Examination!
by Elizabeth Menon

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Lent: Days Of Repentance And Self-Examination!

Shrove Tuesday, as the 'Ease-in Day' and the Self-Cleansing, during the Lent!

Today, 4th March, is celebrated as 'Pancake Day'! Most people readily recognize 'Shrove Tuesday' as the 'Pancake Day' when one can feast on heaps of pancakes laced with caster sugar and lemon juice! But do we know the history of this day? Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent starts: 'Shrove' is derived from the word, 'Shrive': the ritual of shriving during which the Christians confessed their sins and received absolution, following which they are forgiven for their sins. It is also a time for celebration as it was the day before 'Ash Wednesday', when the Lent started. In the Western world, Lent starts on this Wednesday, but in India, the Lent starts on Monday, the 3rd March.

Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday have been celebrated way back in CE 900, as days of penitence, a time for repentance and self-examination. Christians were forbidden to eat meat, fish, egg, milk and butter during the forty days of Lent and therefore, the ideal thing to do were to use up all these items and have a big feast. It was customary to use up all the then considered 'Luxury goods', flour, egg, butter, etc, before the Lent started. They made a batter adding some flour to the mix of egg and milk and out came the delicious pancakes, with a bit of help from the butter that was in the house. Stuffed pancakes would have been made, to finish the rest of the 'Forbidden' food items. Shrove Tuesday is celebrated in different parts of the world, but with a style of their own. In the UK, we call it the 'Pancake Day' and make pancakes laced with lemon juice and caster sugar.

'Pancake Races' were held in various counties in the UK and these races are still organized in some towns; 'Pancake Race' in Buckinghamshire was quite famous. Apparently these 'Pancake Races' began around 1445 – a woman was making pancakes on Shrove Tuesday who lost track of the time when she heard the church bells ringing, calling the believers to attend the service for confession. She ran to the church still holding the frying pan and quite unaware that she hadn't even removed her cooking apron – and the rest is history, as we all wait for this 'Big Day', to feast on the most delicious pancakes, with no guilt trip of shooting up one's blood sugar or cholesterol or adding on few inches around one's waist, as there was a religious justification behind this gluttony! Every household in the UK, irrespective of their religion celebrate this day making pancakes, sweet and savoury, but the sweet version is most popular -- adults and children invade the kitchen on this day to make the pancakes and have a big feast! This has been the tradition since around CR 900, but now, this does not mean that one has to eat all the sugar, butter, cream, cake,etc, as all the surplus food can be given to the Charity Organisations!

It is 'Mardi Gras' in France, Canada and parts of the US (as it meant eating up the fats), and it is also called 'Tuesday of Carnival' that signifies giving up the meat during Lent; coins, rings and other objects are baked into the pancakes and the lucky ones are the recipients of these items! Different versions of the pancakes are made in different countries: doughnuts called 'Malasadas' made with flour, eggs, sugar and yeast in Hawaii; dessert called 'Bebinca' made with rice flour, eggs, sugar and coconut milk in Goa and Philippines; sweet bun called 'Semla' made with flour, eggs, yeast and sugar in Sweden -- and I am sure there are multitudes of other versions all over the world. I remember my Mother and Grandmother making a Pancake using Plain flour (Maida), milk and egg for the batter, and then folding the pancake like a small parcel stuffed with sugar/jaggery and coconut – but they were made at any time! One could also make the most delicious 'Dosa', Ghee roast, paper-roast or even Rava dosa , as made in India!

Ash Wednesday is the day Lent starts in the Western world; it is forty days before Good Friday (excluding Sundays) and is a day of repentance and self-examination; in India, Lent lasts for fifty days, starting from the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday and finishing on Easter Sunday. Christians believe that it is the day that they have to repent their sins and realize that Jesus went to the cross for their sins. Sign of a cross is made on the forehead with the ashes made by burning the blessed palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday; olive oil or holy water is used to mix the ashes. The cross of ashes on the forehead symbolises Christ's sacrifice on the cross as atonement for the sins of human beings. 'Ashes' represent remorse, repentance and mourning. The forty days of Lent reminds the Christians of the forty days Jesus retreated into the wilderness and fasted for forty days. The faithful followers believe that when they follow the Lent for forty or fifty days (As in India), they are joining Him on His retreat. Some believe that the forty days represent the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert or the forty days of fasting by the people of Nineveh and they also consider the ashes as a symbol of mourning, remorse and repentance.

It does not matter which theory we wish to believe, as long as we take some time for self examination and correct the things we can, amidst all the days of celebrations, be it Christmas, Easter, Id or Diwali – let us reflect on that thought for a better future. It could even do us all some good, giving up all those cream buns, pizzas, cake, ice cream, big latte or mochas! And for the uninitiated ones, perhaps this is the best time to start helping the environment, by making a conscious decision to stop littering the earth, stop using plastic bags to carry one’s shopping and to stop eating battery- chickens and battery eggs. Let’s also start thinking about the poor chickens spending their miserable lives in those cages with hardly any space to move and still giving us the eggs everyday, ending up in the ‘Spent pile' or the 'Intensely farmed chickens' reaching our table as the Sunday roast! So, battery eggs and meat from the intensely farmed chicken and plastic shopping bags also, must be on our list of things to give up for Lent. And now in the 21st century, it is a time for 'Inner-cleansing and Detox', helping the poor, saving our environment by giving up the use of plastic bags, recycling materials and composting the kitchen and garden waste,etc, and at the same time, one should not forget the real reason for the Lent, which would only help to maintain our emotional well being!

© E Menon



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