Self-Indulgence vs Self-Denial: Mardi Gras and Lent

This pastoral passage was first written for LRBC for March 5 2023

I was surprised to learn recently that Mardi Gras is in fact connected to the Christian tradition of Lent. My impression had been that Mardi Gras was simply a themed and flamboyant drunken party festival (e.g. here and here) that originated in a culture that is much more festive than most English-speaking countries (admittedly a low bar).

As it turns out, it was originally the last chance at feasting and drinking before the period of Lent began, emerging probably at some time in the Medieval period and becoming something wilder in only recent history (history is full of surprises).

Lent itself, I must admit, is not something I have ever given much attention to – being a good low-church Protestant/Evangelical Christian, things like Lent with its odd practices (i.e. Ash Wednesday) have been dismissed as irrelevant to biblical faith. Nowadays I suspect they have much more use. Concrete and tangible practices that are imbued with theological significance can be a useful way for people to enact important elements of their faith.

Traditional roots of Lent and Mardi Gras aside, what we always have to deal with is what is right in front of us, today. Today I am struck by the presence of two “events” that I see promoted online.

One is Mardi Gras, celebrated by secular people as an occasion to party and indulge in all manner of things.

The other is Lent, observed mainly by more traditional Christians as well as interested others, as a time of somber reflection and self-denial in preparation for sorrow and gratitude on Good Friday and the subsequent celebration of Resurrection Sunday.

One major pull for many people in our current culture—particularly while young—is toward overcoming the inhibitions to gratification and self-expression.* Mardi Gras celebrations foster this.

For young followers of Jesus, their commitment to him is important and involves completely opposite values: restraint, discipline, and patience. In a word, following Jesus requires and demands self-denial.

Here’s my thought on all this. For the purposes of forming and growing disciples of Jesus, prescribed, tangible, and theologically-imbued practices must surely have a valuable role to play. As low-church biblically-oriented Christians this hasn’t been part of our practice of faith, but I think maybe it should.

Perhaps we could consider how we can adopt the motions of Lent into our communal practice of faith.

* The other is toward achievement and acquisition, which I have written about in another post; “Permission to Speak?”