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I think it was sometime in high school while taking German that I began to make the (obvious) connections between Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday/Lent. As part of our learning the German language, we got some cultural education about Germany too and so we learned about “Fasching,” which is the German “Carnival” equivalent of the better known name of Mardi Gras. It all seemed strange to me at the time and I admit most of Mardi Gras seems odd to me to this day too. The idea that you would live it up in semi-riotous (and based on what comes up on Google Images when you type in “Mardi Gras” also rather profane) living before beginning a period of Lenten austerity seems religiously tone deaf. I similarly don’t understand–or don’t want to understand–bachelor parties that launch a man into his married life by breaking most of God’s better ideas about what sexuality is meant to be the night before the wedding. (“Hi, honey! To get myself ready to be your faithful husband, I debased myself sexually last evening . . . “)
Of course, as I have noted before here on The Twelve, I grew up in such a liturgically barren environment that I scarcely knew what Lent was during most of my growing up years. Since we never had anything remotely akin to “giving something up for Lent,” we surely had no need to live it up the day before Lent began (and I know that if for some Mardi Gras means cavorting all-but naked in the streets, for others it may mean no more than eating an extra Paczki, but we never had any of those jelly-filled treats at my house either).
While sitting in the breakroom at the furniture store where I worked during college, I once heard one of the salespeople at the store proudly announce that he was giving up swearing for Lent. He was vastly unamused when I said, “You’re not supposed to give up something you shouldn’t do in the first place, are you? That’s like saying you’re giving up child abuse for Lent or something!” I’m pretty sure that after I left the breakroom, he probably swore at me behind my back.
But I digress. Today is Fat Tuesday and tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and even though many Protestant churches–including my own–have begun holding Ash Wednesday services, we have thankfully not imported the (again, to my mind) loopier practices of Mardi Gras/Fasching/Carnival. Whatever more noble origins Mardi Gras may have somewhere in the mists of history, it seems to have morphed into a reveling in things we ought not do or be interested in doing in the first place. It also seems to prop up the idea that religious practice spells the end of all things fun and celebrative–journeying with Jesus to the cross across these Lenten days and nights starts to look like a rude interruption to what we’d really rather be doing in terms of food and partying and sex.
Yet if Lent and the sacrifice of Christ Jesus to which Lent leads has any meaning at all, it is precisely that Jesus came to salvage this very creation and all the goodness and all the potential for flourishing with which God endowed it in the beginning. The ultimate vision of prophets like Isaiah accord well with Jesus’ own pictures of the kingdom and with New Testament visions for where God’s whole salvation project would end up: viz., in a grand and glorious all-nations banquet and feast. The first “sign” that Jesus performed in John’s Gospel was the creation of a vast quantity of vintage wine for folks already feeling happy from the party that had been in a high gear for a while already. When the disciples saw the water turn to wine, John tells us they saw Jesus’ “glory” and they put their faith in him on account of it. Glory in a glass of Cabernet. Who knew?
In the long run, of course, all the goodness of the New Creation will come about as a result of Jesus’ sacrifice. If giving things up for Lent and leading a more austere existence for six or so weeks helps us remember that, then this is a fine thing indeed. But the last thing we should want is to do anything that contributes to the idea that true religion or faith in Christ spells the end to everything we’d really rather be doing.
C.S. Lewis captured my imagination decades ago when as a child I read his description of “The New Narnia” in the last Narnia book. How delicious (literally and figuratively) his descriptions were of a new creation in which every blade of grass seemed to mean more and where you could eat a pear so fine, it would make the juiciest pear you ever had in the old world seem woody and dry by comparison. But Lewis was just channeling Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear (Isaiah 25:6, NRSV).
Now that’s a Fat Tuesday (or Wednesday or Thursday or Sunday) that comes not before we get all serious about religion and salvation but after Jesus’ work is done when (in Julian of Norwich’s vision) all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.