This week we’ll honor Ash Wednesday and begin Lent, a season of preparation as we walk with Jesus to the cross on Good Friday and to his resurrection on Easter. But, before Lent and any fasts or sacrifices that go along with it, we have Mardi Gras! Mardi Gras is a French phrase meaning “fat Tuesday,” a reference to the opportunity for Christians to gorge themselves before the beginning of the Lenten fast. Mardi Gras is common in French-speaking cultures. Other cultures enjoy similar celebrations, including Carnival in Brazil and Fastnacht in Germany. In some countries the festivities begin as early as Epiphany (twelve days after Christmas).
Events such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Rio have become cultural rather than religious celebrations. But the origins of these city- and country-wide parties is spiritual. The proper name for the day before Ash Wednesday is Shrove Tuesday. Traditionally it has been a day when people have confessed their sins before beginning the holy waiting time of Lent. A day of solemnity became a day of exuberance when people realized that a time of fasting was approaching, and they wanted to use up all of the “bad” foods made with sugar, fat, and eggs. In fact, Liberal, Kansas, has hosted the International Pancake Day on Shrove Tuesday every year since 1950, when Liberal joined a tradition dating back to 1445 in Olney, England. The common threads for all of these pre-Lenten events are fun and celebration, though they have a way of inviting all sorts of gluttony, decadence, and sinful choices.
It’s common for us to turn to God in times of need and distress. We often find ourselves reading Scripture for guidance, encouragement, or forgiveness. But the Bible also has quite a bit to say about celebration. Being holy can sometimes mean celebrating and having fun. We see this in our faith’s history.
Even Leviticus, a book of laws that sometimes makes little sense to our twenty-first-century ears, has a whole chapter (23) devoted to sacred times, the feasts and festivals the Israelites were to honor. Many of the songs and psalms found in Scripture are of joy and praise. (Read Miriam’s song in Exodus 15:21 and about David’s celebration in 1 Chronicles 16:8-36.) We honor our faith and our God when we celebrate in sacred ways.
Faith can be a source of joy and hope even when happiness is hard to grasp. And that’s worth celebrating!