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If John Wesley hadn’t been such a sober-sides, we United Methodists could be strutting our stuff in the streets right now, wearing colorful costumes and casting beads of joy into crowds. I refer, of course, to the celebration of Mardi Gras, in all its purple-green-gold glory.
Few Christians today know that Mardi Gras began as a religious holiday, when Pope Gregory XIII added it to his reformed calendar in 1582 as the day before Ash Wednesday. The observance originally was known as “carnevale,” loosely translated from medieval Latin “carnem levare” or “carnelevarium,” meaning “to remove meat.” The idea was to use up all the rich foods such as meat, butter, eggs and other savories before the fasting season leading up to Easter. Alternatively, some historians say that “carnival” was adapted from pagan hedonistic rites such as bacchanals and the Roman fest of Saturnalia, just to give Christians a big “whoop-de-doo” before the ash-gray penitence of Lent.
Traditionally, Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”) was observed on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Lent started on Ash Wednesday. According to one medieval English source, people were to eat, drink and make merry, then go to their confessors and be absolved, or “shriven,” for their sins (“shrove” being an old English term for “repent”). Hence the additional seasonal name “Shrovetide,” popular in Anglican circles.
These days, in some predominantly Catholic countries, the Carnival season begins on Epiphany Day, AKA Three Kings Day, and continues through Mardi Gras Day. Some of these celebrations, especially in Brazil and the Caribbean islands, have been notoriously bawdy and hedonistic. More recently, in response to the sensitivities of international tourists, the festivals have toned down sex-and-sin in favor of celebrating culture and heritage. Even Mardi Gras’ official colors have faith-based symbolism: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.
For all of Carnival’s contemporary length and complexity, such as in Mardi Gras’ American capital of New Orleans, it’s not hard to perceive its original religious purpose. Mardi Gras encourages us to enjoy the richness of creation that God lavishes on us, to revel in our physicality. After all, as science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein wrote in his classic, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” if God didn’t like flesh, why did he make so much of it?
Perhaps this year, many spiritual descendants of stick-in-the-mud Wesley join me in yearning for a full-blown Mardi Gras. We want to bust loose and rejoice in eye-popping humanity because so many events over the past year have seemed dehumanizing, intent on shoving God’s glorious diversity into steel cages of rules and regulations. Even in a tame Methodist Mardi Gras, we could enjoy music and movement, food and friendship, simply for the pleasure of it. We could grasp Mardi Gras with a fierce revelry, an eternal shout to all who can hear: “God created the world and called it good!”
Yes, Lent looms before us. Once again we will be reminded that we are made from dust, and will return to dust. But there’s still time to celebrate that the dust from which we are made is the same star-stuff with which God creates comets and planets, single-celled amoebas and great white sharks, bananas and baboons and babies that giggle for us if we tickle their tummies.
We are dust, yes, but we are stardust. And stardust sparkles, just like a Mardi Gras mask.
Cynthia B. Astle serves as Editor and Founder of United Methodist Insight.