Mardi Gras

Today is Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday (aka Shrove Tuesday and Carnival). It’s the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent for Catholics, mainline Protestants, and increasing numbers of evangelicals. Lent (the word means “lengthening of days”–i.e., “Spring”) was originally intended by the early Catholic church as a 40-day period of fasting and prayer for those preparing for baptism at Easter; its observance was later extended to all Catholics. In the middle ages the fast was for all forty days, eating only one meal a day, and abstaining from meat, dairy, and eggs. Today, Catholics are to abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent (fish and seafood are not considered “meat”), and to both abstain from meat and fast (defined in Catholic terms as one normal meal and two smaller meals) on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Protestants observe the season as a time of extended prayer and sacrifice, without attempting to mandate specific practices.

Mardi Gras or Carnival developed as a way to use up the prohibited items before Lent began, but it became a time of wild revelry and licentiousness (as we still see in places like Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans).

And doesn’t this negate the very point of the fast? Lent is ostensibly about repentance from sin. How can one seriously repent from sin on cue? Does this not lead directly to the mentality that we should have a final burst of freedom before we have to repent?

Now, I know Catholics who do take Lent seriously, and who repudiate the spirit of licentiousness. For them, Mardi Gras is a time for harmless fun–it isn’t about exposing breasts to obtain cheap plastic beads (and that kind of exhibitionism can be found in the Vieux Carré of New Orleans any day of the year).

Mardi Gras in the small towns and countryside of Louisiana is something different. Consider the traditions in the Prairie Acadian country of Eunice, Louisiana, and surrounding towns. Riders in costume go out to the countryside and collect ingredients for a common gumbo. There’s a boucherie (barbecue), parades, and lots of Cajun music.

Throughout the Gulf Coast you can find the ubiquitous King Cake in stores from Epiphany (January 6) to Mardi Gras. Inside is hidden a tiny plastic baby, symbolic of the search of the three kings for the baby Jesus.

When I was at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary, I learned of the German traditions of Pennsylvania. There the day is called Shrove Tuesday, and the traditions are simpler. There would be fastnachts (a kind of doughnut) in the coffee room at the seminary, and Prof. Richard Nelson would host a pancake supper at his house.

So Mardi Gras can be a time of harmless family fun. But it still says, “Let’s party before we have to repent. We can put off repentance until tomorrow.” And when you program repentance into the calendar, instead of making it the daily attitude of a Christian, when the outward focus is on avoiding certain externals, is it surprising that people would turn the whole thing into a mockery of true repentance?

This is the text assigned for Ash Wednesday–may it be the true focal point of Christian life each day, not merely when the calendar calls for it:

“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.