|Folly and Death|
photo: Carol M. Highsmith
I know very little about other carnival celebrations around the world (and even around the United States for that matter). Apparently some people eat pancakes today...that's pretty under-whelming if you ask me. However, though I am ignorant of most of them, I know there is a wide variety of cultural responses to the liturgical season we call Lent. The one I know is called Mardi Gras.
I was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, a city with a bit of a chip on her shoulder when it comes to Fat Tuesday. Overshadowed by our bigger, younger sister, New Orleans, when it comes to just about everything, especially carnival observance, Mobilians are quick to tell you that our celebration is older, more family friendly, and in general, better. I'm not here to make any of those arguments. (I will readily make them if anyone wants to have that conversation, but frankly it doesn't matter much to me.)
Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday, or rather to me (some of my clergy friends might be shocked by this) Ash Wednesday is the day that follows Mardi Gras. There has not been a single Lent of my life that was not preceded by a big party, and, but for the years I lived away from Mobile, that party was a two-and-a-half-week-long, city-wide party. Sharing in the fun with thousands of other people of all ages (none of whom feel the compulsion to expose themselves...I'm [not] looking at you New Orleans) has a profound effect on a person, especially when the next day, we all go to Mass and receive ashes. I know not everyone is Catholic or otherwise liturgical, but in my experience, you go from Tuesday streets full of people with beads and beers to Wednesday churches full of people with black marks on their heads. The weird transition is there. Many dismiss it as a moral cop out similar to the common dismissal of the Sacrament of Confession: do whatever you want, and you can be absolved right away. In this case of Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, it's the following day!
Herein we find a problem of perspective. Is there sin and debauchery at Mardi Gras? sure, but not by necessity. So long as you're not underage, nor convinced that teetotalism is the right path, nor perhaps a recovering alcoholic, there's nothing sinful in having a drink. There's also nothing sinful in having a drink in public. Drunkenness and carousing I will readily grant are going too far, and yes, many go way too far at Mardi Gras, but that doesn't mean we discredit the whole cultural phenomenon as sinful or even morally neutral.
I believe there is something good about Mardi Gras, or Carnival, or Shrove Tuesday, or whatever it is you call it. It all has to do with the reality of conversion.
Let's talk about Qoheleth. (If you've never read the book of Ecclesiastes, you need to stop reading this blog and go read it, because it's far more important than anything I'm writing. However, assuming you're already familiar with it, let's proceed.)
Each year during the Carnival season, we live out Qoheleth's discovery of the vanity of all things, especially the vanity of putting off our conversion, our penance, our suffering, and ultimately our death. Those are all things we want to deal with tomorrow, not today. Fat Tuesday embraces silliness and folly, pretending that death will not come.
In no way is this illustrated better than by the emblem float of the Order of Myths, who parade Mardi Gras evening in Mobile. A jester, the personification of Folly, chases Death, personified by a skeleton, around a pillar, beating him with inflated pig bladders. (There's no significance of the pig bladders that I know of. They make a really loud POP when you hit something with them, and so are an ideal tool for revelry.) Folly beats back Death...in vain. We all know it's in vain. We all know it's temporary. We all know that tomorrow is coming, and with it austerity, repentance, and ultimately goodness. Today we try in vain to find our fulfillment in this world. Tomorrow, we'll get to work finding it where it truly lies: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Note it's not Wisdom or Courage that tries to beat back Death. It's Folly. And if it's Folly to try and put off Death, then that means it doesn't actually work. Yet we try anyway, time and again, and time and again we're called back into reality, the desert of Lent.
Ash Wednesday is a noble tradition, a powerfully harsh beginning to the fast of Lent, meant to wake us up out of our dull slumber, as cold water dumped on a late sleeper. Preceding Ash Wednesday with Fat Tuesday amplifies that shock even further. Ash Wednesday following Fat Tuesday is a tangible reminder that we are being called out of our stupidity into holiness.
Make no mistake, I'm not confusing the fun that comes prior to Lent with the joy and glory of the Lord's Resurrection. Lent exists because of Easter, not because of Carnival, and rightly so. We empty ourselves during Lent so as to be filled with Christ, and Christ alone. Only through that journey will we find what we are truly looking for. Still, how much more complete is the picture when considering the whole movement? from folly to self denial to true joy.
This is the story of conversion. In order to turn toward Jesus Christ, we have to turn away from something else. We all live out Folly's dream to chase off Death, to put off conversion to a later date, to pretend that the way things are now is "alright" and we don't require change.
Symbols speak to the human person much more loudly than concepts. Never limit the truth to words. Truth is communicated in ways a thousand times more profound than mere words. Carnival is a secular response to a religious practice, but that does not make it any less valuable. It just means there is a default human reaction to the call to repentance: stupidity.
I don't advocate debauchery, gluttony, lust, or drunkenness. However, I recognize that we are all drunk on our sins, in one way or another. Tomorrow, we will likely wake up hungover on those same sins. It might not be literally tomorrow, but we will all eventually find the emptiness and pain our sins cause, just as Qoheleth did. Hopefully that day comes sooner rather than later. Hopefully it comes tomorrow (which for me is a couple of hours away).
On the superficial level (which is by no means unimportant), Mardi Gras is fun. It's a good time. Yet if I dig deeper, I find that it is a powerful reminder to me of my "no" to God. Quite frankly, there are few stronger motivators for me to say "yes" to him tomorrow.