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Mardi Gras and Lent

by Yvonne Liu

The holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year is one focused on indulgence in the form of gifts, foods, and spreading general good cheer, celebrating everything from family to the birth of Christ. So it seems only natural there is a season to purge yourself from all the excess, which also happens to be religiously rooted in the Christian faith.

The season of Lent is the time of preparation for Holy Week, leading up to Easter. Much like New Year's resolutions (this being your second chance in case you gave up after the first month of the new year), it is a time for many to give up something like candy or smoking, while others may resolve to attend Mass more frequently. In a religious sense, the forty days of Lent stand for sacrifice and acts of self-denial. These acts are geared to remind people of Christ and the agony and sacrifices he went through for each of his disciples, with the tragedy of Good Friday leading to the triumph of Easter Sunday.

But before Lent, there is Shrove Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, and is the day of preparation for Lent. The word "shrove" comes from the word "shrive," meaning "to confess," and takes place on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (the day many Catholics go to church to receive the sign of the cross marked in ash on their foreheads, its purpose being to remind them of their own mortality) and the official start of Lent. Pancake suppers also originated, as making pancakes was a good way to use up fat and eggs, two things which were strictly prohibited from the Lent diet. And for much of the country, the Tuesday before Lent is just that, a Tuesday, but in New Orleans this Tuesday is "Mardi Gras," representing the last gasp of decadence before a period of austerity. Celebrated long before in the Christian countries of Europe, the traditions of Mardi Gras came from the French who settled in the New World. Historians say that Mardi Gras was observed by masked balls and bawdy street processions in New Orleans as early as the 1700s. Infamous for masks, beads, parades, and general debauchery, Mardi Gras marks the feast before the fast.

The spirit of the forty days of Lent is borrowed from the days Jesus spent in the desert. During his time there, he was tested, as the Jewish view of the desert was "an abode of demons, especially that part of the desert where winds would howl around tall, rough stone." When Jesus entered the desert, he left behind all the expectations of others-all the hopes and illusions. It was just Jesus and the Father, in the Holy Spirit. But in solitude, demons come. And it was there that Jesus was tempted and offered to be the wrong kind of messiah, and he rejected them all. The defeat of Satan during this testing hinted at the final defeat of evil through the Cross and Resurrection.

During Lent, practitioners abstain from meat (while Orthodox followers also abstain from products that come from animals, including dairy and eggs during the entire Lent season) and fast on Fridays, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday and perform acts of penance or self-denial. Rather than thinking of it as starving yourself for Christ, fasting (depriving the body of food from midnight till noon) is a way for Christians to take charge of their bodies and needs, rather than to allow the body, its needs, and passions to rule over each individual's life.

How is all of this connected to Jesus and his forty days in the desert? In the desert, deprivation is key. There is no water, and therefore little plantlife can exist to provide food or shelter. For many people, deprivation is a great evil that should be avoided at all costs. In a more material sense, not being able to afford a certain kind of lifestyle or owning the latest goods is a fear that drives people to protect themselves from financial distress. However, in deprivation many may discover that they are not all-powerful and have in fact become slaves to pleasure, to the opinions of others, and more. Doing without allows people to strip away some of the illusions for a glimpse of the truth.

In the greater sense of the meaning of Lent, the acts of abstinence and acts of penance are metaphors about what one needs, who one is, and who God is. During life, people try to make some progress in discarding "attachments," but at death, there is no choice. Who is to argue about the worth of attractiveness over a rotting body or the values of possessions as they are taken away by others? Lent teaches its participants that it is far better to discard foolish attachments in this life and to be able to distinguish between illusions and truth.

Source: Rushman.org, Spirituality.org, Holidays.net, FatTuesday.com

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