Today is a normal day, a Monday after Epiphany. Tomorrow is Mardi Gras, one of those holidays which are sort of like a dystopian movie where all laws are abandoned and chaos (or as we used to say “drugs (including alcohol), sex, and rock and roll”) reigns. What is that all about? The medieval calendar was full of them, some borrowed from the Church’s pagan past, such as the festivities around Twelfth Night, with its topsy-turvy social structure, king and queen of misrule, and boy bishop. But Mardi Gras is perhaps the biggest and most unruly. In Germany it is Fasching. In much of Catholic Europe it is Carnival, probably from carne vale (meat, goodbye). Carne is literally “flesh” so perhaps giving up the delights of the flesh is implied as well. In the U.S. we are pretty heavily influenced by the New Orleans Mardi Gras. Why did a festival which more than tolerates immorality, power put into the hands of the uncontrolled, the immoral, all those dangerous tendencies, precede the most somber and religious season in the Church calendar, remembering that in the Western world the Church held political as well as religious sway until the modern world? And how does it feel to us, inside us, to make the sudden switch between the secular profligacy to the spiritual abundance but material poverty of Lent?
There is one point in common. Both Carnival and Lent are about giving the power and agency to the powerless. Carnival invites commoners to insult and mock the nobles and civil authority. Women could display their sexual prowess which ordinarily was forbidden. In Lent we follow the Christ who is both the consolation and redeemer of the powerless, but himself is subject to the mocking, torture, and death by the hands of both commoner and political powerful. That is at the heart of the Mystery of faith, a paradox we struggle with. A humble God who saves? How can that be? That is too hard for us, isn’t it?
Is there a need in us to break the rules, to throw out the discipline, to tear down the system and those who enact it? And we have already seen a twist and double twist. Jesus turns over not just the occasional temple table, but the Law and the arguments of the powerful. Jesus overturns the primacy of the tribal people who held the knowledge and worship of the Father God to include the whole world. And he, who was God, was probably the only reform preacher who did not advocate a threat to Rome by rebellion and violence. But he was the greatest threat to Rome. He ignored Rome. Rome never liked that. Jesus was Carnival, as he is Lent.
We live constantly in the in-between world of sin and redemption. We constantly are tempted to excess, to acquire more, to reinvent ourselves with what is trending, and the trends in this social media world are endlessly changing as fast as those to manipulate us can tempt us for a new garment, a new car, a new truth packaged in a slogan, a new superhero. We aim to please each other, win the competition with each other, arm ourselves from the threat or perceived threat of all the people whom we rub up against, from the driver on the freeway who didn’t do what we wished to those closest and dearest to us, our family, our parish, our pastors. Sometimes those annoyances are legitimate, although the response may not be. But often they are our ego against the universe. That, too, is Carnival, not the humility of Christ walking in faith toward the Cross in obedience to his Father.
Why are we seduced into the glamour of those who pull us from the Gospel truth that consolation will always come from God and no other to the bling of the world? Free will? The hunger of our embodied selves? We are all sinners, even the best of us. Without the practice and discipline of a regular spiritual practice these temptations can seem like a lot of restriction for no reward, and being “good” is boring. The Spirit can break in on any of us at any time, and reveal a kind of peace and glory that no rock festival can ever touch, but normally it takes work and a commitment on our part.
But now we ask, is anything separate from the love of God? And now, in a changing society, one that is embracing tolerance, gender equality not just for men and woman but for a host of gender expressions, and a breakdown of traditional barriers to everything from dress codes to sexual practices, how do we define Carnival and Lent? The rules that once bound us are broken, and who are we now? Jesus ate with sinners. They were good fun, and able to hear him without a wall of prejudice. And they probably served better wine and more of it. But Jesus was not profligate. Jesus obeyed his Father and walked to a death he could have easily run from. Because it was the right thing to do. Life has gotten very ambiguous, hasn’t it? And here we are, at the crossroads of Carnival and Lent. There is good balance, Benedictine balance. Work and prayer. Silence and fellowship. Private prayer and communal prayer. But there is also a dialectic that tugs us between obedience-faithfulness -goodness and indulgence-self-interest-control. Our lives are on a teeter-totter, going up and down between Trust and Fear, Grace and Sin. So we confess again and again, often for the same things. Why was I so angry, so intolerant, so demanding? I am sorry. But we know we will stumble again.
Lent is called a season of repentance. But “repent” is usually defined in terms of sorrow and shame. Metanoia (μετάνοια) is the Greek word in Scripture, and it means a change of heart, a reformation, a spiritual conversation. And that means turning toward God, not beating one’s self up for being human. That makes Lent a good time to hunker down and inspect our lives, how we live, how we follow Jesus, how we take up our Cross. We all have our Carnival days, but we need to embrace our Ash Wednesday days and Holy Week days, because in them we can turn again to God, and shake off our personal demons long enough to explore our real lives, our lives in Christ. We can find joy in serving the needy. We can find peace in prayer. We must forgive ourselves as we forgive our neighbor, our Christian family, our enemies. We have to be patient and love our Carnival self, even if we have to restrain it, prune it, for our good and for the good of the whole Body. And where the line is, well, that is between each of us and the Holy One, who is infinitely patient.
Tomorrow is Carnival, Mardi Gras, a night in the parish for pancakes and shenanigans, and the next day we will wear ashes to remind us that we are but dust, and we will return to dust. But in the Way of the Cross, in Christ Jesus we will become more than dust. And the back and forth of our Carnival and Lent lives will be over in the Glory of the Forever with our Redeemer.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.