Of course for most people ‘Pancake Day’ has lost its religious significance, even if there might be vestiges of it in the background. Like many other formerly Christian feasts, it’s much more focused today on the products that companies want to promote. You may remember the TV advertising campaign of a few years back with the slogan ‘Don’t forget the pancakes on Jif Lemon Day!’ In fact, feasting itself has lost its significance for those of us who live comfortably in the West. We live with plenty, not scarcity, so we can basically feast whenever we feel like it. It doesn’t feel as special as it did in centuries gone by because many of us have more than we need all the time. The inexorable rise in the rates of Type 2 Diabetes is down to a number of factors, but one of them at least is the richness of our diets and our overindulgence in sugar and fat. One of the other names for this day is ‘Mardi Gras’ — Fat Tuesday. It’s a day when people typically eat more fatty foods than usual — a dangerous idea in our times of plenty!
There is some evidence that this feast, like so many others, has a pre-Christian origin, but Shrove Tuesday, as you may well know, comes from the word ‘shrive’, which means to absolve. The idea is that it is a day of preparation, of putting away excess with one last ‘blow-out’ before we enter into the period of fasting. It is meant to be a putting aside of our over-indulgence in all kinds of ways and concentrating on prayer and honest self-examination. This too has some hangover into our post-Christian culture. Lots of people talk about giving things up for lent – often alcohol or chocolate. Some Christians in reaction to this often prefer to talk about taking things up; taking on a new discipline of action or prayer. That’s all good. But let’s not forget the discipline of fasting itself. It’s a practice observed throughout the Bible, in the Old Testament and the New. Jesus spoke about ‘when you fast…’, not ‘if you fast…’. He assumed that his followers would practice it.
Fasting doesn’t necessarily mean going without food. It can mean eating more simply and perhaps eating less. Enjoy the feast of Shrove Tuesday, but use that opportunity to reflect on how our plenty is only possible because we have exported scarcity. Other countries grow the food we will buy at the expense often of being able to grow enough food to feed their own populations. Workers on the land that grows products for Western consumption are often paid a pittance. Even farmers in the UK struggle to make a living from the land under the squeeze from supermarkets. So I encourage you this Lent, unless you have a medical condition that would make it dangerous for you, to think about how you will fast and live for a time in a little more solidarity with the poor, because their poverty is not disconnected from our plenty.