Feast & Fast: The Biblical Significance of Shrove Tuesday & Ash Wednesday Traditions

Ranyel Paula, Cathopic, Public Domain / Cristian Gutiérrez, LC, Cathopic, Public Domain

A very devout and holy Catholic woman once told me, “We Catholics…we seem so weird to those who don’t get it.”

Admittedly, I was taken aback by her comment. But she made me think.

We Catholics can certainly seem a bit weird. Especially a person bases their opinions on what they think we believe rather than what we actually believe. Unfortunately, this happens all the time.

For example, let’s look at two Catholic traditions that if misunderstood, might seem “weird”.

Shrove Tuesday (commonly called Fat Tuesday) and Ash Wednesday.

On Shrove Tuesday, Catholics tend to pig out. But, why do we Catholics do this?

Lent is 40 days.

If we look to Sacred Scripture, we see that “rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights” (Gen. 7:12). The Israelites, “moved about in the wilderness forty years” (Josh. 5:6). Goliath tortured the Israelites for forty days and nights before David defeated him (1 Sam. 17:16).

As part of Jewish custom, Jesus was presented 40 days after His birth “when the days were completed for their purification” (Luke 2:22). Our Blessed Lord Jesus, fasted, prayed, and was tempted in the desert for forty days and forty nights (Matt. 4:1-11).

After His Resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven after forty days (Acts 1:3). The number ‘40’ is throughout both the Old and New Testament. Forty is significant because it is seen as a time of preparation and/or purification.

Strictly speaking, Jesus’ praying, fasting, and temptation prior to His passion is precisely why Catholics pray, fast, give alms; and believe me–we are greatly tempted during the forty days of Lent.

We too, are preparing for our Blessed Lord’s passion, death, and glorious Resurrection.

We overindulge the day before Lent begins because we go into the desert with Him, so to speak, and we know it! The next 40 days will be days we fast from what enjoy most, because of our love for Jesus and His love for us, and our anticipation for Christ’s Paschal Mystery.

We’ll pray more because He deserves our best and He first prayed for us. We’ll give more because He said that whatever we do to the least of His people, we it do to Him (Matt. 25:40).

We will love more, we will serve more, we will suffer more, all to prepare our hearts to hunger more. However, we will not hunger for food or perishable things (John 6:27). Rather, we will hunger for holiness, love, and justice.

Most importantly, we should develop a hunger, ache, and longing for Jesus–the bread who came down from Heaven–the living Bread of Life who is truly present in the Holy Eucharist.

We deny ourselves so that we hunger for what really matters–always remembering that it is Jesus who hungers and thirsts. He died for us. It’s that simple and it’s that beautiful!

What does ‘Shrove Tuesday’ mean?

‘Shrove’ means absolution or repentance. Traditionally, on Shrove Tuesday, the faithful received to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, asking forgiveness of their sins in preparation for Lent.

‘Shrove’ comes from an ancient phrase, ‘Shrovetide,’ which in English, means ‘carnival.’

‘Carnival’ and ‘carnal’ come from the same Latin word, carnem, which means ‘flesh’. ‘Shrovetide’ derives from the Latin words, carnem levare, meaning ‘to take away the flesh’.

That’s exactly what we do during Lent: we take off the flesh.

With God’s grace, we try our best to deny ourselves of the three-fold concupiscence St. John mentions. Namely, lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life (1 John 2:16).St. John teaches that these things are of the world and not of the Father.

It should be mentioned that the Catholic Church only requires the faithful to practice both fasting (one regular meal and two small meals) and abstinence (no meat) on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Granted, all Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence (no meat). Canonically, all Fridays throughout the year are days of sacrifice (Canon 1250).

The Church recommends 40 days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but does not require it. Catholics could fast for two days and abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent and still fulfill all the requirements. That is, if you want to take a minimalist approach.

Or, one can freely choose to dive deep and go big. Love is the reason to choose the latter. No one becomes a great saint by choosing the least they can do; and you, my friend, are called to be a great saint!

What about the ashes?

Ashes also appear throughout Sacred Scripture and are used when referencing repentance and penance.

Here are a few examples: Job 42:6, Lam. 2:10, and Neh. 9:1.

In every case, ashes are used as a sign of repentance. Catholics wear ashes on Ash Wednesday for the same reason.

Ashes remind us of a few things:

1) We are sinners in need of repentance.

2) We came from dust and will return to dust; therefore, we should cling to that which is eternal.

3) Jesus’ triumph over death and sin.

All this seems weird if you don’t understand the history and Church teaching. Thanks be to God for those of us who do understand! Lent is an opportunity to love the one who loved us first. Praised be Jesus Christ!

Be assured of my prayers that you have a holy, penitential, and fruitful Lenten season. May you greet our Lord’s Resurrection with the utmost anticipation and hunger.

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[See also: A Little-Known Chaplet for Battling God’s Enemies With The Power of Christ’s Holy Face]

[See also: Your Lenten Guide for Fasting & Abstinence, According to Catholic Teaching]

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Bridget Costello is a Salesian Cooperator and full-time missionary. She loves sharing the Truth and beauty of the Catholic Faith, especially to young people and families. Follow her on Instagram for one-minute reflections on faith and culture.

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Bridget Costello is a Salesian Cooperator and full-time missionary. She loves sharing the Truth and beauty of the Catholic Faith, especially to young people and families. Follow her on Instagram for one-minute reflections on faith and culture.