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Revelry and Solemnity Collide

Revelry and solemnity will converge this week, if only for a moment. In the convergence, a great reversal occurs. We reclaim the nearly lost image of the Christ as the one who joined The Party. And then we set aside the passions of the celebration to begin the long wait to welcome, again, the one who embodies our hope for rebirth.

By dusk on Tuesday, the French Quarter will once again be in the spotlight. That spotlight will teem with people intent on plumbing the depths of what it means to throw a party. New Orleans has become famous worldwide for the celebrations that will unfold there.

Above the revelry is an ancient attempt to prepare for the agony of Christ’s cross and the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection. What a paradox! Preparation for the holiness of Easter has, through the centuries, become an impetus for The Party of the year. The reputation of Mardi Gras falls well below the holiness of Easter. The liberty of reliving the Passion of the Christ has, it appears, become a license to give in to all of the passions of The Party.

Mardi Gras is a French term. It translates “fat Tuesday.” In the early centuries of the Christian church, the celebration of Easter was preceded by a period of fasting and reflection. The period lasted 40 days, not including Sundays, and was called “Lent.” The period of 40 days of fasting began with Ash Wednesday.

In the French tradition, Lent meant that meat and fat were not permitted in the house. So, “Fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras—the day before Ash Wednesday—was a last blast of cleansing the house of all meat and fat in preparation for the fasting associated with Lent.
Cleansing the house of fat and meat usually meant a lavish meal associated with a party. And so, The Party of the year was born.

“Lent” is an Old English term. It translates “lengthen” and came to be associated with the lengthening of days in the spring, a time of rebirth. The dormancy of winter gives way to the revival of nature. It is the perfect time for Christians to celebrate the renewal of life through the resurrection of Jesus. And so Lent came to be a time to anticipate the power of resurrection.

What shall we say about the paradox of the revelry of Mardi Gras and the solemnity of Lent? Perhaps a good place to start is to hear from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus responds to his critics with a paradox of a different sort:

“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” (Lk 7:33-34).

Revelry and solemnity will converge this week, if only for a moment. In the convergence, a great reversal occurs. We reclaim the nearly lost image of the Christ as the one who joined The Party. And then we set aside the passions of the celebration to begin the long wait to welcome, again, the one who embodies our hope for rebirth.

On the far end of our waiting, we will endure the Passion of the Christ and plumb the depths of his humanity, and ours, as pilgrims on the way to wholeness.

Rick Wilson is the Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity in Mercer University’s College of Liberal Arts in Macon, Ga.

Buy Wilson’s books now from Amazon.com!
Mercer Commentary on the Bible
Rhythms: Sermons for a Community of Faith and Learning