Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth — 1 Corinthians 5:8
All about Mardi Gras
Like Gideon’s trumpet (Judges 6:33-40), the season of Lent calls all the tribes together to resist the enemies of God. Though we seem weak, we are strong because God is with us. The most unlikely weaklings will dance in the street in the face of the powers attempting to dominate them. Mardi Gras is appropriately uproarious, if you see it right. In some sense, to be a Jesus-follower is to be a fool, to use your clowning to unmask the powers-that-be who pretend they are very serious entities when, in fact, they are just a breath and have a master.
Lent has rarely been see the way we just mentioned. The Eve of Lent became a time to hold off the inevitable, even to mock and diminish the authority of the spiritual season “imposed” on everyone which begins on Ash Wednesday. In Europe, the church of the Middle Ages had a lot of power to impose the rigors of an enforced fast during the 40 days (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter. Before the fast began, people partied and did things they shouldn’t do in order to get those things out of their system before they committed (or were forced to commit) to doing the things they should do.
Most historians believe Mardi Gras was brought to the Americas by the French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville in 1699, but the origins of Mardi Gras go back much farther. According to History.com, Mardi Gras resembles February celebrations from ancient times:
“According to historians, Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, including the raucous Roman [festival of] Lupercalia. When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate these popular local traditions into the new faith, an easier task than abolishing them altogether. As a result, the excess and debauchery of the Mardi Gras season became a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.”
Many Protestants give the “side eye” to such cultural accretions to their holy days (Santa and the Easter Bunny, included). Perhaps the enculturation of Christianity was a mainly crafty political move when Christians took over government authority. But maybe that was not all. Maybe Jesus followers trusted Jesus to redeem and use the pre-Christian celebrations. You’ll have to decide. In Philly, Mardi Gras is often for getting drunk, whether people are giving up alcohol for Lent, or not. You’ll have to decide.
One of the things many people did (and still do) on Mardi Gras was eat all the foods they wouldn’t be seeing for a while during their Lenten fast. “Carnivale” means “putting away meat.” In Pennsylvania Dutch territory a “fastnacht” came to be the name of a donut instead of the title of the day (as in Fast Night or Lent Eve). The holiday came to mean “the day we use up all the lard.”
Unfortunately, “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras in French) came to be a day to store up as much of the past as possible, so one could endure the season of moving into what is next. Instead of being shriven on Shrove Tuesday, many people are just like Peter, trying to keep Jesus (and themselves) from going to Jerusalem.
The news gave a priest 5 minutes to explain Mardi Gras and the whole season:
What do we do with this?
If Christians don’t lead in the joy, are they hiding their light under a bushel? Do we really believe loving and sharing space with people will contaminate our holiness? That’s not too incarnational. What does it say about Jesus if we withdraw?
Jesus’ journey to the cross is the ultimate pilgrimage into what is next. Let’s respond to the trumpet and move with him. Let’s keep in mind his concerns, so we don’t get stuck in what is merely human. There’s nothing wrong with being human, of course, unless we don’t have in mind the things of God. If people think you are a fool, that might be a good thing.
Getting drunk, like many in the Philadelphia region will be doing, is a short-cut to being a fool and rightly considered foolish. It is not the kind of foolishness we’re talking about.