The Epiphany season is drawing to a close, and for people in areas with a history of French influence (including Louisiana and the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf coasts), that means it’s almost Mardi Gras.
Growing up in North Alabama as I did, I knew very little about Mardi Gras, except 1) it was something “only those people down in New Orleans and Mobile do” and 2) “It’s just for the Catholics to see how big they can sin before they repent the next day to start Lent.”
What I’ve come to believe over the years is that neither one of these statements is true.
1) Yes, Mardi Gras is a big deal in New Orleans and Mobile, but it’s also a big deal in South Mississippi and many other places too. Furthermore, whether you call it Mardi Gras, Carnaval, Shrove Tuesday, Bannock Night, Fasching, or one of the many other names by which it is known, the day is celebrated by millions of people the world over.
2) Shrove Tuesday (its English name) is not just something “those Catholics” do, and it is not just an excuse to “sin big” before Lent begins the next day (Ash Wednesday). Sure, a lot of people treat it that way, but that doesn’t mean this is why Shrove Tuesday exists.
Yes, Mardi Gras means “fat Tuesday” and Carnaval means “farewell to meat” (not “celebration of the flesh”, unless by “flesh” you mean animal flesh, i.e., meat), but that is because, under Lenten restrictions during the Middle Ages, many Christians did not eat meat or fatty foods, so the last day before Lent began was the last day to get those types of foods out of the house. In this way, “Fat Tuesday” is no different from the thorough Spring Cleaning of homes that takes place before Passover, when all leaven is removed from the house. Instead of throwing out any meat, fat, milk, eggs, etc. in the house, Christians came up with ways to celebrate the day by making festive foods that would use up these particular ingredients.
So, in England, Shrove Tuesday became a day for pancakes (using up a lot of milk, eggs, and fat). In Scotland, it was known as Bannock Night (Scottish drop bannocks are like pancakes made with oats). The popular Mardi Gras “King Cake” is made from the rich French bread dough known as brioche, which is full of eggs, milk, and sugar. (The first King Cake is eaten on Epiphany, January 6. See below for the connection between Epiphany and Shrove Tuesday.)
“Aha!” some may shout! “You said celebrate! See? They’re just looking for an excuse to have a party!” As a Protestant, even as a Protestant minister, I do not, cannot understand the Protestant, and (it seems) particularly the Reformed aversion to celebrating and feasting before the Lord. The Reformed, if anyone, should be ready and able to celebrate better than anyone. God commands feasting in the Bible: we act as if he grudgingly allows it at best.
So why feast on Shrove Tuesday? Aren’t we just “sinning that grace may abound”? No.
Shrove Tuesday is the culmination of the Epiphany season just as Epiphany itself is the culmination of the Christmas season. At Christmas, the light has come. At Epiphany, the light is manifested to the Gentiles. The last Sunday of the Epiphany season is Transfiguration Sunday (this coming Sunday), in which Christ displays the light of his glory to his disciples. On Shrove Tuesday, we celebrate that Light with one final feast before it is obscured for a time, but of course the Light is not extinguished. After we get to the other side of the Lenten season, which reaches its apex at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Light seems completely extinguished, but of course it returns on Easter Sunday, even brighter than it was before. Remember, Shrove Tuesday is during the Winter: the Light is shining in the darkness. But Easter is in the Spring. Really, Easter (the Great 50 Days of Easter, the “queen of seasons”) is the Spring.
Finally, from a practical standpoint, what better way can there be to reach out to your community than by celebrating this feast in a positive, Christ-honoring way? Do we expect to win over unsaved neighbors who may enjoy parades, King Cake, and beads by wagging our fingers in their faces and saying “We don’t do Mardi Gras!”? If we understand the spiritual meaning behind the seasons, we can present a corrective to the abuses of Mardi Gras without completely alienating ourselves from our culture. Could this be part of what being “in the world, but not of the world” means?
So this Shrove Tuesday/Mardis Gras/Carnaval/Fasching/Bannock Night, celebrate! Feast in the light of Christ. And invite your friends, especially those who do not yet know that Light, to feast with you.