Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras.

The phrase conjures images of drunken revelry and riotous carnality, tempered with a little voodoo carnivàle. Associated as it is with that most sensual of American cities, New Orleans (at least until Katrina and its aftermath changed the city and our perception of it forever), “Fat Tuesday” seems the antithesis of anything holy or sacred.

But its origins, of course, are in the Church’s season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is preceded by Fat Tuesday (“Mardi Gras” in French) which, historically, was a time to eat up all the rich foods—meat, butter, eggs—you would not be consuming during the Lenten fast. The word “carnival” literally means “farewell to meat”. Some churches observe “Shrove Tuesday” (shrive=to confess) by hosting pancake suppers.

But what does it mean, I wonder, to “feast before the fast” when we are encouraged every day in this culture of excess to feast?

Our mindless gluttony, our promiscuous eating habits (we’ll eat anything, anywhere, anytime) are regarded matter-of-factly. If such habits are questioned at all it is usually from a medical point of view, not a theological one. After all—many rationalize—religion is about what we believe, not about what and how we eat. We know we shouldn’t eat so much but (wink, wink) our cravings are just so hard to control.

The season of Lent stands in stark contrast to such thinking. Lent calls for fasting, prayer, penitence, self-examination, awareness of our mortality, simplicity of living, and a compassionate spirit toward the needy. Yet in an age when self-scrutiny is often mistaken for self-absorption, such a disposition is not easy to cultivate; such a contrast not easy to manifest.

Some of us will give up chocolate or cheeseburgers this Lent, and that may be a start. But without a sustained, honest reckoning of the bad habits, destructive impulses, and false desires that claim us, our addictions and pathologies, both great and small, easily remain intact.

The desert experience of Lent is a great gift and a risky one, too. We risk looking foolish in a world that promotes excess in all things; we risk the realization that we have misidentified our real needs and desires and what ultimately can satisfy them.

We risk, in short, our very transformation.

(Originally published Tuesday, February 5, 2008)

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