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Mardi Gras, Carnival and a joyful Lent!

March 7, 2011 3 Comments

by Manfred Zeuch

The colourful costumes, sensual atmosphere and overindulgence of Mardi Gras often presents a stark contrast to the Christian observance of Lent which immediately follows.

In any culture a society’s rites and popular feasts, such as Mardi Gras or Carnival, are opportunities for remembering joyful and painful events in private life and civic history.

These rites and feasts appear in all ancient cultures, so when the ancient Church introduced the period of Lent, with its fasting and austerity, society adapted a pagan rite as a “prelude” so rules could be broken just before the time of fasting, prayer and repentance. “Carne valet” (carnival) means to “put away the meat” or the “flesh” even. However, its celebrations say, “Let us be fools once more, because tomorrow it’s over!” The Roman carnevale was an homage to the Greek god Momos, the god of satire and mockery. People going to carnival feasts in Brazil—where I come from—are known as “foliões”: participants of the “folia”, the “insanity.”

At the time of “Mardi Gras” (“Fat Tuesday”) people indulge in excessive eating and other instincts the day or days before Ash Wednesday as a “last minute pleasure.” The degree of excess depends on the country and culture.

Today, Brazil’s carnival is known worldwide for its splendour and excesses. Officially it features impressive parades with amazing sets and costumes. But carnival in Brazil is more than the world’s most luxurious parades. Wearing costumes is part of its symbolism; it makes you feel like something you are not.

King Momo (Photo: Daigo Oliva/G1)

In many Brazilian cities the “King Momo” (each city has its “king”, usually a fat man clothed as a pompous king) receives the “keys to the city” before the feast. This symbolically gives authority and power to what happens during this time: mockery, derision and excesses, all under the banner of “joy”: “Alegria, alegria!” 

Since ancient times the rites of disorder, protest or deconstruction had a common element: a change of behaviour (even of identity); abuse of alcohol; and loss of control over one’s basic instincts. Orgies demonstrated a state of emptiness in wild behaviour.

As in years past, this year many Brazilians will follow the general encouragement to “have lots of sex, as long as you use condoms,” and “drink as much as you want, as long as you don’t drive.” The result is an increase in unwanted pregnancies, STDs, alcoholism and drugs—not to mention emotional and psychological trauma.

In Brazil, carnival is a highlight of the whole year for many people, and they fall into sadness after it’s over, and their only hope and joy (and most of their savings) focus on next year’s carnival. “Sadness has no end, happiness has,” says a famous Brazilian Ash Wednesday ballade. “Our carnival is over!” says the well-known Ash Wednesday Marche written in the early 1960s.

Mardi Gras is also a tradition in North America, especially in New Orleans and Quebec, both from the French tradition, with roots in preparing for the start of Lent. Although you see costume parades, masquerade balls and king cake parties in New Orleans, the North American carnival seems much less excessive. In Quebec particularly you have innocent activities as “a winter amusement park, with attractions such as skiing, snow rafting, ice sculptures, snow sled-slides and outdoor shows.”

In its historical essence, carnival represents the natural human state of forgetting God. There are often “more things allowed” in the name of a (superficial) joy that come from no other root than human insanity: “la folie”!

Must we be sad and grumpy, depriving ourselves from all life’s good joys?

In old times, people felt Lent was a legalistic, austere preparation for Easter, accompanied by depriving of food and other natural instincts totally or as much as possible. But today, how should Christians prepare for Easter? Must we be sad and grumpy, depriving ourselves from all life’s good joys? No, we must not.

The imposed, externally visible fast and sadness is something Jesus did not like at all with the religious people of his time. He knew about temporary fasting. And it can be a good practice for us provided it is free and in His spirit: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, but anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret,” (Matt. 6:16).

He doesn’t say “you must fast.” It is our own decision. If we do we should not see it as showing off religiosity and piety, but use it for true internal preparation. Outside show happiness, fulfilment, contentment, and joy!

Yes, we can be joyful in Lent!

What joy? Not a fake or “acted” joy, but one that comes from the Lord as we meditate on who we really are, on what Christ’s grace and forgiveness mean in our life, and what our adoption as God’s beloved son or daughter represents for us, through Jesus’ blessed life and death.

A meditating faith focused on God’s promises grows in joy and peace, and a physical fast can help us realize our new state in Jesus Christ delivers us from the slavery these earthly things can have over us: food, alcohol, sex, and other toxic products. It helps us recover the real joy of the Gospel, and renew our being, receiving from God the good things and pleasures of life as blessings and not as lords ruling over us.

The joy and fast in Christ’s spirit also frees us to serve others as He has served: those who don’t experience real joy and fulfilment in life, those whom we can help in one way or the other.

So Christians and the church should proclaim and live a joyful fast and Lent, free from insane slaveries and joys, but infused with the joy coming from the delivering Lord Jesus, for whose Gospel sake we can groom our hair, wash our faces and appear in this world as exuberant, humble, helpful, joyful people eager to serve our neighbour, so they may wonder “Where does this hope and joy of living come from?”

Dr. Manfred Zeuch, a Brazilian, is president of Concordia Lutheran Seminary, Edmonton.


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  • Christian said:

    Very well explained! Just to add that in Brazil, most people do not really like carnival… they like only the day-off at work ;)
    Almost major every city has a carnival parade, but it is especially famous in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In fact, more than 50% of brazilians doesn’t like carnival. The violence increase, in the street and in the traffic, and most people wants to rest during there 4 days of carnival.
    That’s it, just a complement!

    Congrats for your article!


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