Today should be a time of tranquility, of preparation for the penitential period we begin tomorrow with Ash Wednesday. While many will be attending Mass tomorrow morning and receiving ashes on their foreheads as a remembrance of their mortality, many others will be waking up with a terrible hangover because they partied well into the night, throwing responsibility to the winds. Such is the nature of the Mardi Gras celebrations that have indeed raged out of control. Riots have been breaking out from Brazil to Seattle.
Having experienced the Mardi Gras festivities in this editor's collegiate days, we can tell you it is not the proper preparation for Lent. Of course, back in those days this editor didn't give it too much thought. Mea culpa! Last night, today and well into Ash Wednesday Bourbon Street will turn into a bacchinallian orgy of non-responsibility as we saw first hand in the sixties.
As the years have progressed, the moral turpitude of celebrating this "carnival" - this big blast before penance time - has diminished. It wasn't always thus.
The name Shrove Tuesday is derived from the Anglo Saxon word scrifan which was translated to "shrive" meaning to hear one's confession and give absolution in the Sacrament of Penance. It is part of the three day preparation for Lent prior to Ash Wednesday, referred to as "Shrovetide" which incorporated "Shrove Sunday," "Shrove Monday" and "Shrove Tuesday." In 130 A.D. Pope Saint Telesphorus instituted Quinquagesima Sunday which is also Shrove Sunday or the Sunday immediately before Lent in order to impress on the faithful the need for preparation to do penance and fast. Over the centuries Quinquagesima Sunday has been incorporated into the Sunday of Ordinary Time and Shrove Tuesday is the only day remembered in the concept intended by Telesphorus.
It became customary during medieval times for the citizens to exhaust the excess of fruits and vegetables they had accrued over the winter so they would not go to waste during the strict fasting period of Lent. Therefore they would hold a carnival of sorts to share the food and drink with others which became a social fest for all to celebrate over the years.
The Germans had a similar ritual which they called "Fetter Donnerstag." In England the Brits wolfed down eggs by the bushels to polish off the eggs and dairy products that would spoil over time. Out of this came the recipe for what we know today as pancakes. What eggs were left over were buried in cold ground to keep for the forty days but not much longer. Thus the tradition of eggs at Easter and the ultimate evolution of the "Easter Bunny" makes sense. Another reason for consuming these foods in great quantities the week before Lent evolved from the ecclesiastical restrictions on meat and fatty foods that were inappropriate for Lent.
Back in those days people heeded the strict fast the Church demanded. They would garb themselves in true sackcloth and cover their foreheads, arms, legs and the rest of their body with ashes as a reminder of who they were and in reparation for their sins. But before they donned these penitent robes, it was time for one last fling. Unfortunately, in southern climes of France, Spain, Italy and the New World the weather was conducive to shedding many garments - too often too many articles of clothing - causing increased inhibitions that were thrown to the winds. Too often the rationale was used that one could sin today and confess tomorrow. This thinking has sadly carried on through today. To rationalize this or masquerade it they donned masks and costumes, staging plays that spilled out into the streets as people wrote their own scripts - with plots that evolved around the seven deadly sins. Thus this time of preparation, of depleting excess supplies and eliminating sin from the soul through confession, bowed to more emphasis on the celebratory "make hay while the sun shines" philosophy and Christian festivals gave way to the pagan ritual of Carnival and Mardi Gras which began in France during the French Revolution.
Prior to that time Catholics in France had closely adhered to the traditions. Actually Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday" in French and was originally meant for a day of feasting before the day and season of fasting. Actually, it was a time when folks in Europe came together much in the manner Americans do for Thanksgiving - with wine, food and music to encourage each other to be able to keep the Lenten resolutions they had been planning during the week before Lent. It was a time when the French began on the previous Thursday - thus the term "Jeudi Gras" - Fat Thursday in which they began to feast while they prepared for Lent. Many times it dealt with excess of crops and it was necessary for them to consume much of the food stored up over the winter so that it didn't go bad or be fodder for rats and other pestilences, especially wheat. Thus the French devoted the entire week before Lent in preparation by "finishing off that which would not keep." With the revolution and the age of Voltaire the age of reason was ushered in. Tradition was thrown out the window in favor of pagan practices.
It was a direct assault against the Church and in mockery this once-Christian festival of pardon and sharing became a garish display of all the wanton vices the Church condemned. Over the centuries this debauchery has grown worse where the false belief has arisen that one can sin all they want on Shrove Tuesday and then confess their sins the next day and be totally forgiven. They forget to realize this is not the purpose of the Sacrament of Reconciliation which they mock with this false belief. They forget that absolution is conditioned on the sincere contrition of the individual to avoid the occasions of sin. Partaking in the orgy-like atmosphere of Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations is definitely not in concert with what God or His Church direct.
To counter this, Holy Mother Church sought to remind the faithful of the reasons for Lent and proper preparation meant coming together in prayer rather than for decadence. Priests formed "Forty Hour Prayer" cenacles to both prepare for Lent and to make early reparation for the debauchery in which others were participating. This is growing today in Rio de Janeiro where the Church is re-emphasizing "Forty Hours."
The ribaldry became so bad in the eighteenth century in Italy that Pope Benedict XIV issued a plenary indulgence for those who participated in Exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament held for three days during the Mardi Gras celebration. As we all know today in New Orleans, the carnival grows bigger and bawdier every year as the "Big Easy" makes it easier to fall into the grave temptation of sin. The carnival itself has taken on a satanic theme with the hideous looking antagonizers dressed to scare along with the similarly-grotesque Krewes crew. To their credit many parishes in the parishes of the city and surrounding areas are offering Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to counter the carnal carnival underway on and around Bourbon Street.
Another custom, much more calm and sedate, but a thrill for the youngsters is to find the "Baby Jesus" inside one of the "King cakes" a purple, orange and green conglomeration of dough and sweets that taste very much like hot-crossed buns, popular on Passion Sunday. It is always fitting that the children look for Jesus, even in a cake, but their parents need to educate them and themselves that they don't have to claw through the kneaded matter to find Jesus; all they have to do is need Him and look for Him in the nearest Tabernacle. He's there and so lonesome while everyone else parties.
So as we acknowledge Mardi Gras, let's all get a headstart on tomorrow by showing restraint in pouring down one more and remember that "thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." (Genesis 3: 19). If we can remember that, we won't have to dust off the ashes of regret! Then it will be easier to throw away the garish and seductive carnival beads and embrace the beads of true love, hope and Mercy as Our Lady has promised - the Rosary! After all, when you realize the consequences and rewards, we're better off with Mary's beads!