Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Msgr. David Q. Liptak

Q. What is the derivation of the English word "Lent"? In other words, why is the 40 days’ period before Easter called by this name? Also, why such words as Mardi gras and "Shrove Tuesday"? And why is the word "Easter" preferred over "Resurrection"?

A. Let’s begin with "Shrove Tuesday." Shakespeare uses the verbal form of the noun; i.e., shrive, which refers to confession and absolution in the Sacrament of Penance. In Hamlet, for example, the Prince experiences the horrible temptation of dispatching his uncle before his intended victim could confess his sins to a priest: "…put to sudden death/ Not shriving-time allow’d…" (v: 2, 46) And in Romeo and Juliet, the prospective bride is reminded to go to confession before her marriage: "And there she shall at Friar Laurence’ cell/ Be shriv’d and married." (ii: 4, 195)

One source book enumerates at least 16 instances of shrive or shrift within Shakespeare’s plays (Shakespeare and Catholicism, H. Mutschmann & K. Wentersdorf, 1952).

In contemporary English, the medieval verb is reflected in the common contemporary expression "short shrift," meaning "a quick settlement." Originally the expression referred to a hastily made or perfunctory confession and/or absolution.

The Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday is called "Shrove Tuesday" because it was once customary to go to confession on the day before Ash Wednesday.

Mardi gras

The Germans refer to Mardi gras as Fasching or Fassnacht; the word is probably derived from the verb vasen, meaning "to run around crazily." (Which is largely what many people do on the day before Ash Wednesday.) The German dictionary I use defines Fasching as "carnival" (Schöffler-Weis, 1963).

Probably the best source book for Lenten customs as well as those of other Catholic observances is Father Francis X. Weiser’s popular Christian Feasts and Customs (1958).

Incidentally, it is important to keep in mind that the annual date for Ash Wednesday has to be calculated by counting backwards from the date for Easter. Originally Easter was set, in the context of Julius Caesar’s calendar, as the first Sunday after Passover. According to an explanation given in an excellent article by Father Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory in a recent London Tablet (5 Jan.’08), however, this date "turned out to be surprisingly difficult" to compute, and by the 16th century Pope Gregory XIII simply had to consult scholars to revise the calculation process. Since 1582, therefore, a new formula was devised, one which allows 22 March as the earliest possible Easter date. (This can only happen roughly every two centuries. This year’s date of 23 March only occurs about once a century; the next occurrence, however, will be in 2060.)

The problem, of course, is that while most of the world today lives by the solar calendar (set in reference to seasons), the Passover date originally belonged to nomadic groups and fishermen for whom the moon’s light and the sea tides were crucial.

A new solution was suggested by Vatican Council II in its "Declaration of the Most Sacred Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican on the Revision of the Calendar." This document affirms that the Church does not object to Easter’s being assigned to "a particular Sunday" in the Gregorian Calendar, "provided that those whom it may concern give their consent, especially the brethren who are not in communion with the Apostolic See."

A fascinating footnote to Father Consolmagno’s explanation is that a fixed Easter date would prove especially helpful in light of future space travel, when the moon may not be one of mankind’s key temporal reference points – unless one calculates by "earth time."

means "Fat Tuesday," signifying the last free day before the required Lenten fast and abstinence at designated times. "Carnival," a Latin compound, probably means "farewell to meat" – vale plus caro. Another theory is that the word derives from carnem levare, meaning "withdrawal of meat."