In February of 2007, I received a grant to spend a long weekend in New Orleans during the Mardi Gras season. Looking back, I still can’t believe the University of Oklahoma gave me money to attend what some would consider the biggest party of the year. But I promise you that the trip really did have its merit.
I was finishing up a degree and writing a thesis on the satirical practices in religious gatherings of the Eastern European Christian tradition... blah, blah, blah… who cares, right? Boil that down and basically, I was writing about comedy in religion. As my research progressed, and because my thesis chair had a love for New Orleans, I focused in on Mardi Gras and how the sacred coexists with the profane. I was given a grant for research and, not really wanting to roam Bourbon Street alone, I talked my brother into joining me in New Orleans.
Now, let me give you a little context. Most people assume that New Orleans is in a constant state of Mardi Gras. That’s not really true. Yes, there is always a major Catholic and French presence but people don’t wear masks or throw beads 365 days a year. The tourist shops lie to you. Those festivities only take place during the carnival season leading up to Lent.
And yes, there is more to Mardi Gras than drunk frat boys trying to get inebriated co-eds to lift up their shirts against their better judgment. Unfortunately, that is the commercialized view of Mardi Gras. Yes, it happens but it only happens on Bourbon Street, which really isn’t even in the French Quarter.
Most people don’t realize that kids in the NOLA metro are actually out of school for Fat Tuesday. Neighborhoods in the suburbs host little parades. Mardi Gras has always been a family affair. Parents and kids go to parades in the Quarter. People in costumes throw candy (and beads… they aren’t just for grown ups) to kids. Call me idealistic but that's true Mardi Gras. Sadly though, those images won’t get the bros at the Pike house to drive up from Tallahassee for the weekend.
It really is a shame that Mardi Gras has been hijacked by people looking for a good excuse to get trashed. I firmly believe that removing Mardi Gras from any spiritual context robs it. But when approached properly, Mardi Gras has its place in the church calendar and in our preparation for Easter.
Of course I’m not advocating for a person to go out and check off every bad thing on a random Tuesday night. Let me be clear, sin is sin any day of the year. But I am suggesting that there has to be a healthy (and God-honoring) ramp up to Lent.
So what is Lent? Put simply, Lent is a period of 40 days leading up to Easter. For centuries, Christians have used this period to prepare for Easter by fasting from something. When done sincerely, Lent can be a powerful time for any believer. It’s not a time to quit smoking or stop eating so much cake. But it is a time to purposefully put away luxuries for the sake of focusing on Easter. Of course, more times than not, chocolate is the luxury of choice.
That helps us to see where Mardi Gras (and Fat Tuesday) would come from. If you are going to give up meat for Lent, you are naturally going to want to eat as many hotdogs as possible the night before you start the fast. This is precisely why the Mardi Gras season is often called carnival, a word that comes from the Latin phrase “farewell to the flesh.”
So why participate in Lent? I believe it is a positive experience simply because it prepares us for Easter. Unlike any other holiday, Easter seems to sneak up on us. I’ll admit that it is sneaky. It moves around on us. But that’s not a good enough excuse to forget our most important holiday.
Lent remedies that excuse and forces us to count down the days until Easter Sunday. Consumerism doesn't allow Christmas to sneak up on anyone. In its purest, kids hang paper chains and churches light advent candles to count down the days until December 25th. Lent does the same thing for Easter. It helps us remember that we are approaching the most pivotal celebration of the year. After all, if Easter isn’t true, none of Christianity is true.
Additionally, Lent centers on repentance. If you get up early and attend an Ash Wednesday Mass tomorrow morning, the priest will apply ashes (a reminder of our mortality) to your forehead and probably say something like, “turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.” Now, I’m not Catholic but I’ve attended a service every year since my trip to New Orleans. Every year, that phrase is extremely meaningful to me.
In the end, Lent isn’t a deal breaker. No one gets into heaven because they successfully gave up Mr. Pibb for 40 days. But if you are a follower of Christ, I hope you’ll take a crack at Lent this year. No, it won’t earn you any special points with God. I don’t think he’ll be mad at you if you skip the 40 days all together. But it might help you to see that giving up something small can often give you so much back in return.