In many cities of the world yesterday, people celebrated Marti Gras – Fat Tuesday. It’s the day that ends Carnival – the period between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday kicks off a special season of fasting and prayer that Christians have celebrated through the centuries, usually referred to as Lent. I can write more about Lent as the season progresses.
Today, I want to talk about Marti Gras, and the need for Ash Wednesday. In Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, the Mardi Gras festivities are especially famous. In those cities, the costumes (for those who wear any) will be colorful, the dances will be sensual and the food will be plentiful. It is a day of indulgence.
It’s funny in a way, this celebration of Mardi Gras. I mean, the whole idea of Lent is to teach oneself to live a different sort of life. It’s the season when we “try on” new behaviors and put away behaviors we want to change.
Some people give up smoking for the forty days of Lent because they hope that by doing it for forty days they may learn how to do it forever. People do this with gossip, promiscuity and all other kinds of sin and vice.
So what’s the point of Mardi Gras? Why indulge on the evening before the fast?
I suppose the original idea might have been to smoke that last cigarette, get drunk that last time, or tell that last lie before one gave such behaviors forever. That rarely works, of course.
We can’t really give up something we are still in love with, which is what an addiction is.
I took my daughter Talitha once to see a movie called 40 Days and 40 Nights. It was loosely about Lent; I figured it would be good for us to see what the secular viewpoint of Lent looked like. As it turns out, the guy in the movie was giving up sex for forty days and the movie was about his struggles to resist the urge. That guy saw sex in everything! Wherever he turned his eyes, he could only see sexual things. Flowers, coffee pots, the pot roast and oatmeal were all suddenly sources of temptation. (Well, not oatmeal, I made that up.)
I kept thinking the movie would turn the corner but of course it didn’t; until the very end anyway. (And by the way, I don’t necessarily recommend that you go rent this movie!)
Later, my daughter told people how weird and awkward it was to watch that movie with her dad. As we were leaving the theater, she said, “Dad, I don’t ever want to talk about this!”
Truth be told, it was no better for me!
But that’s the way it is. Repentance can be difficult and requires a willingness to face temptation with a resolute decision that one has already made.
I think Mardi Gras is a sort of pagan alternative to Lent. Perhaps in the minds of non-believers, they just see us Christians making a big deal about fasting and prayer for forty days...and why? Well, they think, tonight let’s rub it in their face! Let’s do everything pleasurable that comes to mind!
Of course, there is always the possibility that some people might actually get sick of sin. They may become revolted by the debasement of human life that occurs when people drink too much, give their bodies away to too many people, expose themselves to strangers and conclude the evening puking their guts out.
So in a way it’s fitting for sin to overreach and thus expose its toxicity to human life and joy.
That’s why this morning, millions of people – some of whom participated the night before in Mardi Gras – will get up and force themselves to ignore the hangover and go to church.
They will go forward and feel the ash being applied to their forehead and hear the words of the pastor: “Remember O man; from dust thou art and dust thou shall return; repent then and obey the gospel.”
They will respond “amen.”
And some of them will say to themselves and God, “I mean it this time. I’m finished with that way of life.”
And God will say, “welcome home.”