Faith Time: Mardi Gras

Mobile, AL (WKRG) - William Parsons is the Senior Pastor at Redeemer Lutheran in Fairhope.  Here's a look at our conversation:  

Chad:  We wanted to talk about Fat Tuesday and Christianity--how do they tie together?

Guest: I really believe they are. 

I have several reasons for this belief:

First. Location. Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday complete Carnival, which begins Epiphany (January 6) which commemorates the Magi's visit of the infant Jesus,  and ends at Ash Wednesday. This cannot be coincidental.

The Traditional Christian Church Year literally determines when Carnival Revelry begins and ends. This explains why some years Carnival lasts longer than others. Because Easter is later. 

Secondly, Longevity. Christianity and Mardi Gras/Carnival have been co-existing for almost two millennia. The earliest mention of Lent is found in Canon 5, of the Council of Nicea, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine, 325 anno Domine. (H.R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils …, pp. 13, Nicene and Postnicene Fathers, Vol. 14, Hendrickson Pub., Peabody, Mass., Second Printing 1995) And Pope Gregory the Great 590-604, decided that all celebrations would end and fasting begins on Ash Wednesday. Clearly ancient peoples were celebrating and feasting on what we later consider the "Mardi Gras season."

Thirdly, "Fat Tuesday," is so named because Christians gave eating "fats" for Lent. Winter meat, butter, and cheese stocks would diminish as Spring approached. So, ancient Christians and their pagan forerunners ate everything up before it would spoil. 

Thus there's the belief that Carnival derives from the Latin "Carne Vale," or a farewell to the meat. For during lend the Church called believers to renounce eating meat on certain days or all together. 
Additionally, a renunciation of "Flesh" has a profound theological sense as everything opposed to God. (

Chad:  What are some of the Christian traditions embedded in our Mardi Gras celebrations?

Guest: Mardi Gras' Traditional colors: Gold, Green, and Purple give us a hint as to that answer. These colors aren't accidental.

First, consider Gold. Gold is both the color of Kings, Heaven and Christmas. The Magi come looking for Jesus asking, " where is he who's been born Jesus was born King of the Jews?" (Matthew 2.2) And the Magi are frequently considered "kings" and in Nativity Scenes they are wearing crowns. Also one of their gifts to Jesus is gold. This is also why the "King Cakes" contain an infant Jesus figure. I see this as one of the undergirding reasons why our Mystic societies give gifts. They are emulating the Magi. And Gold is the color of Easter. Thus Christmas and Easter are linked liturgically to Carnival. Because Jesus enters our world at Christmas and redeems our world at Easter we can rediscover true joy and happiness in this world as well. Which is what Carnival is all about. 

Green is pointing to Epiphany. It is the color of the oldest Church worship rules. Additionally, Green is the color required for the vestments and appointments of the three weeks of Pre-lent.  Green represents life, especially this earthly life which Jesus renews and the heavenly life which the Infant "King" give us. And Green points ultimate source of all living things- God. 

Purple is Advent and Lent's color. And purple is also the color of royalty. Kings are said to be "born into the purple." Jesus was born a king, which the magi acknowledge at Epiphany.  And the purple seasons of Advent and Lent define Mardi Gras' length. 

Chad: Why do think Mardi Gras has achieved this status that to some are completely separate from its Christian roots?

Guest: There are several reasons. One is that America is as Alexis de Tocqueville, once is reported to have said, A country with the soul of a church. Yet that church, especially in the South has been decidedly protestant-Evangelical. And unfortunately, many of Mardi Gras' connections to Christianity are more obvious if you grow up in a more traditional-liturgical environment. 

Another is that, the American Mardi Gras, has like America itself, become a democratic institution guided by and driven forward by its "voters." The mystic societies and the crowds that enjoy them want certain things and these two groups encourage each other. So in Mobile, we see the emergence of the Moonpie throw and Joe Cain, both unique American Mardi Gras/Carnival contributions. 

I also think that many Christians become opposed to celebrations like Mardi Gras because they believe, correctly, that Jesus opposed drunkenness, gluttony, and vain displays of wealth, etc. And while this is true, yet Christianity has never been opposed to feasts and celebrations per se.
 We just object to their abuse. Thus,  Isiodore of Seville (560-636) complained about moral excesses in revelry among the Spanish. And Italian reformer Savonarola preached against Florence's Carnival due to the proliferation of indecent books, pictures, crude masks, and costumes. (And at one point much of these things were burned by roving bands of children - almost like a Maoist "Cultural Revolution). (pp. 673-74, A History of Christianity, Vol. 1, K.S. Latourette, Rev. Ed. 1975, Harper & Row Pub., New York) And Dante denounced the Venetians Carnival, the first to be made government holiday in Europe (1296) for its "unbridled lasciviousness." (pp. 929, Will Durant, Age of Faith, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1950).  

Yet, Jesus approved moderate feasting. He demonstrates this in His first miracle at the Wedding at Cana, where when the wine ran out, Jesus turned 188 gallons of water into the finest Cote de Rhone. (approx. number based on average volume of the water jars used for Hebrew purification rites) Clearly, Jesus, while opposed to drunken debauchery, isn't opposed to people celebrating, and some even falsely accused him of by being a drunken and a glutton. (Matt. 11.19). Can't have that happen if you don't ever go to a party.

What is the importance of Ash Wednesday?  

Guest:  response: Ash Wednesday is important because it calls us to repent from doing things we ought not do and to seriously examine our own estate and where our lives are heading.

Ash Wednesday calls us to reassess our direction and the imposition of ashes plays a neat part in this process. 

Chad: Why are the imposition of ashes important?

The imposing of ashes on our foreheads remind us that we are mortal and that our minds ought to be focused on this reality. 

 By burning the previous year's palms used on Palm Sunday, we remember that our celebrations are all eventually ceased. And life becomes a movement of ashes to ashes and dust to dust. And as Christians, we believe that only Jesus' Lenten journey to his death can save us from ours. 

Chad: What is something you like about this season?

Guest:  response: I like the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. I also think the bodily fasting is a good practice. And I really love the idea of 'giving something up for Lent." 

And, while chocolate and booze tend to be Lenten denial favorites.  I would like to suggest a more God-pleasing alternative fast would be to give up a favorite sin for lent and do instead a good deed that you've not done before.

Like, say, give up anger, hatred, and prejudice while helping and by showing kindness to others. This lent explore selflessness rather than selfishness. 
After all, Jesus says "Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice." (Matthew 9.13)

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