What, Exactly, IS Mardi Gras and Lent?

Editor’s Note: This is a re-post of an article I wrote years ago on Mardi Gras and Lent. H0w familiar are you with the histories of these “holidays?” Today being Mardi Gras, why not refresh your memory of the who, what, when, where and why?

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian holy season of Lent. Have you bought your “Merry Ash Wednesday” cards yet? Wrapped your presents and put them under the Lenten Tree?

Just kidding.

Seriously, what is this whole “Lent” thing, when did it start and what does it mean? And what does party-crazed Mardi Gras have to do with it?

Explaining Lent

Lent is one of the seasons of the traditional Church calendar that predates calendars — at least the modern Western calendar. In most denominations that observe Lent the period lasts 40 days, starting with Ash Wednesday and ending on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. The 40 days represent the time that Jesus spent in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry, where he endured temptation by Satan.

Ash Wednesday gets its name from a strange ritual performed at high churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, etc.) that involves the placing of ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of repentance. First, the priest will make a cross on his own forehead and then mark the congregants. Interesting, huh?

Laissez Les Mardi Gras Rouler!

In more modern times, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday has become a wild and crazy holiday of vice called Mardi Gras. Don’t be fooled. Mardi Gras is not meant to be harmless fun. It’s a day to let loose and have as much uninhibited sinful fun as possible before the stroke of midnight. Why go party-wild before a holiday season? Well, here’s the definition of Lent on Wikipedia:

“Lent, in Christian tradition, is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer — through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial — for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Got it? Lent is a period of self-reflection and personal denial. It’s a time to focus on the sinfulness of man (fresh in the minds of Mardi Gras revelers, no doubt) in preparation for remembering the sacrificial death of Christ and His glorious resurrection.

The History of Lent

Historically, the origins of Lent are a mystery. We know through ancient church sources that there was some period of pre-Easter remembrance celebrated by churches as early as the AD 100’s. But the length of the observance differed from group to group, as did the method of observance. It appears that some level of fasting was involved, whether complete fasting (total denial of food and water) or moderated fasting (water only or one small meal with water). The reason for fasting was purely spiritual: to deny the cravings of the body in order to focus on the sufficiency of Christ. Fasting was also sometimes accompanied by sexual abstinence, which added to the denial of bodily desire.

Now can you understand the behavior of Mardi Gras celebrants? The day before they were to give up food and sex, they went hog wild to get their fill. Mardi Gras literally means, “Fat Tuesday” in French.

One such proponent of the 40-day fasting and abstinence festival was a personal hero of mine: St. Athanasius, who lived in the 300’s. Athanasius was a devout man with a fire for holiness and truth. He is best known as a defender of traditional Christian doctrine in the face of the Arian heresy that resulted in the famed Council of Nicea. Well, in AD 331 Athanasius instructed his flock in Alexandria, Egypt, to observe the 40-day period of remembrance in preparation for Holy Week (Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday). At the time, it appears much of the Eastern Church was observing a form of Lent.

Still today the different denominations celebrate Lent differently. The Orthodox Church celebrates the 40 weekdays before Holy Week, leaving weekends to splurge on food as they celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection. Other groups observe an 8-day Lent. And it’s not just fasting and abstinence anymore. Some Protestant denominations (Methodist, Lutheran, Anglican) will allow a person to give up a specific vice of theirs, like chocolate, caffeine, or smart phones (Just kidding! Who could possibly do that?) in keeping with the spirit of Lent. It’s kind of a cop-out, if you ask me, but better than missing meals!

So happy Lent, everyone! Or maybe I shouldn’t say, “happy.” Sad Lent, everyone? Contemplative Lent, everyone? May your heart be filled with thankfulness for the bountiful grace of God in Christ, who redeemed our sin-soiled lives and gave us a new and abundant life.

Be God’s!

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The Wisdom of Trees

“A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit; on the other hand, a bad tree doesn’t produce good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs aren’t gathered from thornbushes, or grapes picked from a bramble bush. A good man produces good out of the good storeroom of his heart. An evil man produces evil out of the evil storeroom, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.”  — Jesus, in Luke 6:43-45

I’ve always had trouble identifying trees. To my untrained eye, most bark looks exactly the same. And the leaves? To me, there are two types: round and pointy.

I know that some trees offer more shade than others. Some trees are purely “ornamental.” Some trees smell really, really nice (spruce, anyone?). And some trees have rotund things growing from their branches. They may be edible. They may be poisonous. They may be sleeping hummingbirds. Who knows?

Exactly ten years ago I moved into a 2-bedroom rental house in lovely Gainesville, Texas. The pier-and-beam house was built sometime after World War II and, for 1300 square feet, seemed surprisingly spacious. But it was tiny compared to the backyard, which extended some 40 feet back, stopping just past two very large and very healthy trees. What kind? Don’t ask me! At the time they were just trees. Big trees.

As the winter turned into spring the leafless branches began budding. Bright green shoots were followed by brilliant white flowers. I had never seen trees so large turn into floral displays! Dogwood trees, yes. I once did a TV news report on dogwood trees, so I know them when I see them. But these behemoths were not dogwoods.

Another month passed, the white flowers faded, and small green orbs took their places. What is this species of tree? Could that possibly be… fruit? Is it a nut? Is it a… hummingbird? (Of course I knew it wasn’t a bird. Just checking to see if you were still awake.)


This is the fruit produced by my backyard trees. It looks like apples, right?

The green orbs grew over time, as did my excitement. The bottoms started to resemble apples, though the tops remained round. “Was this an apple tree?”  wondered. “Oh, puh-lease let it be an apple tree! Please?” I’ve always wanted to have an apple tree. While I prefer Fuji apples, this new fruit was going to find a warm welcome in my household regardless of its vintage. Continue reading

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Science Continues to Verify the Biblical Stories

This is one of 110 tablets discovered in Babylon and released to the public recently.

Those who know me well know that I’m a major archaeology buff. After all, archaeology combines two of my passions: science and history, and the field of biblical archaeology combines a third passion: the Bible.

So I was giddy as a schoolkid today to read this headline on the news wire:

2,500 Year Old Jewish Tablets Discovered in Iraq

Sweet! A quick subtraction of the years leads us to a time frame of 500-ish B.C., a time during which the Bible tells us that the people of Israel (which at this time was only Judah, the Southern Kingdom) were in exile in Babylon. The land of ancient Babylon is covered by the modern nation of Iraq.

Here’s the history. In 586 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon laid siege to the kingdom of Judah, which had its capital in Jerusalem. The Jewish king was Zedekiah, a descendant of King David, who had tried to pull a fast one over on King Nebby by pledging loyalty and then rebelling against the mighty monarch (2 Kings 24:20; 2 Chr 36:13). Once Nebby heard of the betrayal, he said, “No mas!” and marched to Jerusalem, ending the rebellion, destroying the city’s walls, destroying Solomon’s temple, slaughtering people, and taking “the best of the best” to exile in Babylon (see Daniel 1). The events of the exile are recorded at the ends of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. The biblical books of Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel and Daniel cover the exile.

Well, it was a certain fact to conservative Bible scholars that the Jews were really in exile in Babylon. In fact, Psalm 137 talks about how the exiles reacted to being in Babylon.

By the rivers of Babylon —
there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There we hung up our lyres
on the poplar trees,
for our captors there asked us for songs,
and our tormentors, for rejoicing:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing the Lord’s song
on foreign soil?
(Psalms 137:1-4)

The archaeological record had already confirmed the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. But secular critics were skeptical of the exile. Where’s the archaeological proof? Where did they live? What were their names? What did they DO?

Today it was announced that 110 clay tablets have been released to the public, many of which describe Jewish life in Babylon during the exile. Here, in the Akkadian cuneiform script (which looks like a bunch of triangles), are the names of Jewish exiles, evidence of their business transactions, the name of a settlement that basically means “New Jerusalem” (like New York), and a description of them settling by the rivers. The last part is a confirmation of Psalm 137.

Isn’t that cool?

In these clay documents are names that reflect a post-exilic nature, like one “Yashuv Zadik,” which means, “the righteous shall return [to Zion].” This person’s name either means hope to the Jews of a return to Jerusalem in light of God’s promise or it is evidence of a return that already happened.

Folks, God’s word is true and science is not opposed to Scripture. In fact, it is shedding light on the events and persons of the Bible. Because the people and kingdoms were real, archaeology is uncovering evidence of their existence. Archaeology and science allows us to see how people lived, how they built things, how they created art, how they fought in battle, how they grew crops, etc.

So far, science has proven that Mesopotamia is the cradle of human civilization (Genesis), that the walls of ancient Jericho were destroyed in haphazard manner (Joshua), that mighty Egypt once housed Jewish shepherds (Exodus), that there was a David who had a royal household, that Solomon built amazing structures, and that kings of Judah ruled from Jerusalem. It has proven that Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom, destroyed Lachish and laid siege against Jerusalem to only go home without conquering it (see 2 Chr. 32:20-21). Also that Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and took exiles, only to see itself conquered by Cyrus the Great of Persia and its exiles freed with royal permission to rebuild their temple (Ezra 1).

There’s more! But I think I’ve made my point. I cannot wait to see what archaeology turns up next. God’s Word is true, my friends, and the events contained therein really happened.






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Lessons from Genealogy

Lately, my father has been doing a lot of research into his family tree. Going back 300 years into the past, he is on a quest to understand what made his father and his father’s father the type of men that they were. And in the process, I suspect, he is also trying to understand with more clarity who he himself is.

The genealogy kick makes perfect sense for my father, who has always been a history buff. A love of history is one of the good things that I inherited from him (if you can inherit a hobby!). He reads history books, old and new. He watches documentaries. And he is always good for a discussion on some subset of the history of America.

None of these people are related to me. It's a Great Depression stock photo.

None of these people are related to me. It’s a Great Depression stock photo.

In his personal search, he keeps coming upon new discoveries that enlighten his understanding of his family. For example, last week he and my mother found the East Texas site of land that his great-grandfather farmed. Nearby, he also discovered a place that might have led his grandfather to quit farming and join the oil field workforce during the Roaring 20’s.

My dad is also discovering different things about the convictions of his ancestors. Some of them were highly religious — stout Baptists on the frontier of church expansion in Texas. Others were blue collar blokes, working the oil fields of Louisiana and Texas, and experiencing a breaking down of their bodies and hearts. Some owned slaves. Some did not. One even played baseball. Another loved to sit by the fireplace in her chair.

I know some people who give a “Who cares?” about genealogy (and history in general). “They’re dead. I didn’t know ’em. Move on.” But researching history is not a static, cold exercise. Once you start learning things about someone, names jump off a page and they become real people. People who lived through history you never saw, did some remarkable and courageous (or infamous) things, and paved the way for your life today.

I told my father the other day — after hearing his latest family findings — that I am deeply fascinated at how the lives of those who came before us influence the lives that we currently live. The farming decision that his grandfather made in 1920-something, for example, led to a completely different way of life for his children. My grandmother did not grow up on a farm. She didn’t marry a farmer and raise their children on a farm. That one decision by my great-grandfather influenced his children, their children, and so on.

I’m also fascinated by the emotional (some would also say “moral”) aspect of decisions made by my ancestors. For example, alcoholism, in several forms, runs through both my ancestral families (maternal and paternal). My dad recently found out about some less-than-godly traits of the men in his family tree. Some decisions ruined relationships. Those sour relationships affected other relationships to the third and fourth generations. Like most families, I’d imagine, there are underlying emotional wounds that go back a long way in my family. My dad has had to deal with some of them his whole life. Because they affected him, they have affected me, too, and my relationship with him.

We cannot change the past. Not without a time machine, anyway! Even then, some sort of paradox would likely occur in which all of civilization gets shifted into an alternate universe…. eh…. (I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who and Star Trek). We cannot change the past. But we also cannot use the past as an excuse to sabotage the present. Our past wounds do not need to, nor should they, define who we are. There is no, “My father did this to me, so I’m not responsible for … X in my life.” You are responsible for you and I am responsible for me.

Even so, isn’t it interesting how the past affects the present? As my dad continues to unravel the layers of his family’s past (and, thus, mine) my fascination with the past-present connection only grows.


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