Tuesday is the big day, people. We can eat, drink, and be merry, because looming ahead is the Forty Days Of Lent! I have everything in place for our own big Mardi Gras blowout. At the store today, I bought two (yes, I said TWO!) bags of flavored popcorn and a bag of peanut M&M’s! After a normal, at-home supper, we will work on our winter jigsaw puzzle, watch the winter Olympics on Network television, and snack on the acquired goodies. WOO-HOO, this is gonna be some crazy party here tomorrow night!
The historical intent of Mardi Gras is religiously/liturgical calendar based. Mardi Gras is French for “fat Tuesday,” and this was the day that the French Christians would finish up all of their butter and rich cuts of meat, so as to be better disposed to hearing the word of God during Lent. (Making little sacrifices does, indeed, lend oneself to being a better listener, for that I can testify!) This Wed, we will enter into the penitential season of Lent, when we give up certain earthly pleasures to allow our hearts to be more open to the joy of knowing and loving God. Some people choose to give up meat, or chocolates, or all sweets, or snack foods. Others might choose to refrain from complaining or criticizing, which is a different form of “fasting” that could be very beneficial for themselves and those whom they love. This is, at least, the history of Mardi Gras. It was a day, sometimes several days (or weeks, even), when Christians would celebrate and eat heartily prior to Ash Wed. Sometimes there were masked balls and public celebrations, particularly in France. In the UK and Ireland, the day before Lent is referred to as Shrove Tuesday instead, which points more strongly to the true nature of the observance and the coming Lenten season. Shrovetide (which is actually the whole week leading up to Lent), comes from the word “shrive, which means to confess, or to be pardoned. In other words, folks in England & Ireland are promoting a visit to the confessional during that week prior to Ash Wednesday, to prepare oneself appropriately for the coming liturgical season. And, then, for some unknown reason, they all go home and eat pancakes. Don’t ask me why.
With our country’s fair state of Louisiana being historically settled by a strong French influx and influence, it was natural that the more extensive Mardi Gras observances would flourish there. Everyone has heard of the contemporary Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and thousands travel there to join in the excitement. Over the years, however, they have thrown out the Christian concept of the season, and have adopted the observances of the ancient Roman celebration of Lupercalia. This was a feast (around the same time of year) to honor the pagan god of fertility. In addition to feasting, there was lots of booze and “carnal behavior.” Sounds pretty much exactly like what goes on in New Orleans these days. You could not pay me to go there! In my house, we will stick to the liturgical sense of the season, which doesn’t lead to possible weight gain, hellacious hangovers, and serious deathbed regrets.
So, if you haven’t already, get to the store, get to confession, and get ready for Ash Wednesday. It will be here soon, and by then, all of the pancakes will be long gone. You don’t want to miss out on those pancakes, and you don’t want to miss out on a holy Lent, either. Lent is one of the best “gifts” of the liturgical year, so don let it slip by unnoticed. So, when the Mardi Gras celebrations are but a memory, head to church this Wednesday for (what I call) “Must Ash” day (Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches can be counted on for observing this practice). You’ll feel the gritty ash against your skin as the shape of a cross is imprinted upon your forehead. Wear it proudly throughout the day….you’ll be glad you did!