For many years, I never associated the celebration of Mardi Gras with any sort of religious observance. After all, the news footage of hordes of people in the streets in various levels of drunkenness doesn't seem to depict holiness. Growing up in a Protestant denomination that did not observe Lent, the whole holiday just seemed to be an excuse for public intoxication.
For many of the people celebrating in New Orleans and other parts of the world, that is all that the celebration represents.
But as I've grown older, I have learned of the beautiful traditions of some of the other denominations. For Catholics and some Protestant denominations, Mardi Gras (literally translated "Fat Tuesday") is the final day before the observance of Lent. Mardi Gras didn't start out as a time of drunken revelry. It originated just as a final opportunity to feast prior to the fasting of Lent.
While Mardi Gras has gained a reputation for its hedonism, Lent is known as a time of prayer, repentance, and recommitment leading up to the celebration of Christ's resurrection at Easter. Starting with Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, and culminating 40 days later, Lent is a time of spiritual preparation for the most important religious holiday for believers. (Sundays are not included in the observance of Lent as Sundays are supposed to be holy days of celebrating the resurrection for all Christians.)
Traditionally, observers participated in Lent by abstaining from certain types of food (particularly meat, eggs, and milk products). In some traditions, partial fasts were observed where participants would eat only one meal on certain days. Many who observe Lent today are not as strict. Often they choose to abstain from a particular food or particular behavior (such as watching TV, for example) during Lent. The idea is to abstain from pleasurable activities and instead use the time and energy usually spent in those activities to focus on taking stock of one's own spiritual condition and repenting for spiritual failures. This idea seems foreign even to many Christians in our culture of immediate gratification.
The 40 days of Lent are also a time of grief. All Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ each Easter. Unfortunately, we often don't spend much time grieving over our sins that caused the brutal execution of Christ. This tradition begins with the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday. Ashes are put on believers' foreheads on Ash Wednesday as a sign of repentance. The practice of putting ashes on one's head is an ancient sign of mourning that was often done at funerals or similarly sorrowful occasions. In this case, the ashes represent sorrow over our sins and the pain and death caused by sin. Perhaps if we are to truly appreciate the great cost to Christ of our salvation, we should meditate on our sinfulness. This meditation should lead observers of Lent to turn away from their sins and recommit themselves to holiness.
Perhaps, after we examine our hearts and lives, we will be led to cry out to God as David did, "Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me" (Psalm 51:9-10).
While my particular denomination does not traditionally celebrate Lent, I have come to appreciate its relevance. As we prepare to celebrate Easter, perhaps we should all use the next few weeks to focus less on our physical appetites and more on our spiritual needs. Perhaps such meditation would lead us to appreciate anew the cost of grace and the victory of the empty tomb.