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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