To most Americans, Mardi Gras means alcohol, beaded necklaces, and women bearing their breasts. It is the beginning of the Spring Break season, which means more alcohol and more half naked women. And if things go right, with more sexual exploits. Yet, Mardi Gras’ roots are actually in fasting, confession, and repentance.
Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” marks the end of the period between Epiphany and Lent. Epiphany celebrates the three wise men visiting Jesus. Lent is the season leading up to Easter. To understand Mardi Gras, you first have to know about the period that follows it.
The Lenten Season begins on Ash Wednesday. Neither Ash Wednesday nor Lent are specifically mentioned in the Bible. However, their basis is Biblical.
Throughout the Old Testament, God speaks of fasting as times for self-reflection, prayer and spiritual growth. This God instructed practice inspired Christians to fast for a period before Easter. They chose 40 days since Jesus fasted that long prior to being tempted by Satan. Those churches that still observe Lent exclude Sundays as they represent Christ’s resurrection. So, fasting is not appropriate on those days. However, Orthodox denominations do include Sundays to adhere to a strict 40 days.
Calls of repentance for our sins appear throughout the Bible. In Leviticus 16, God instructed the Israelites to yearly participate in such a day, known as the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.
“Then he (Aaron) is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat.” (Leviticus 16:8-9)
Aaron places all the wickedness and sinfulness of the Israelites on the scapegoat, which is then released into the wild. The other is sacrificed as a sin offering. Unfortunately, the ceremony of Yom Kippur itself became the focus, overshadowing the meaning behind it. They started believing the ritual satisfied God’s wrath, forgetting the events foreshadowed the Messiah. The goats represent what Jesus would do for all humanity.
Jesus’ teachings exposed their error, not to condemn them, but to bring them to the Gospel. Ultimately, he became our last scapegoat and sin offering, fulfilling God’s requirement for the sacrifices with his death and resurrection. Jews today still observe Yom Kippur by fasting and repenting.
Lent is an extended period of atonement. Therefore, leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, Christians fast, repent, and spend time in prayer. A time of self-examination, they look at their lives, admit their sinfulness, and recognize their need for a savior. Thus, leading them to repentance. It emphasizes and stresses the true meaning and depth of Easter.
Ash Wednesday, or “Day of Ashes”, marks the beginning of the Lent. Throughout the Bible, ashes expressed grief, but also sin and sorrow.
When the Israelites mourned, whether for a person or sinfulness, they put ashes on their head. Though the Bible does not institute Ash Wednesday, the custom stems from instances of mourning, prayer, fasting and repentance in the Bible.
Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went. – 2 Samuel 13:19
When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. – Esther 4:1
Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes. – Job 2:8
So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. – Daniel 9:3
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. – Matthew 11:21
Ashes are usually made from burning the previous year’s Palm Sunday branches. Ministers use them to make a cross on the forehead. However, some just sprinkle the ashes on their heads. Regardless, it reminds worshippers of their sinfulness and mortality and therefore the need to repent.
Originally, ministers spoke God’s words to Adam and Eve, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” (Genesis 3:19) while applying the ashes. Over the years, Jesus’ quote from Mark 1:15, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” has been used as well.
To prepare for the season of humbleness and repentance, as well as growing spiritually, Christians initially observed the day before Ash Wednesday as a somber day. They used it as a day of confession, becoming known as Shrove Tuesday, from “shrive” meaning “confess”.
In the early church, Christians willingly gave up flour, sugar, and other delicacies as well as foods from animals such as meat, milk, eggs, butter, cheese and animal fats. Since Lent is a time of fasting, Shrove Tuesday also became a day of feasting. People spent the day to finishing up any meat or ingredients before a period of abstaining. Eventually, the trips to the confessional were replaced by festivals of indulgence. Shrove Tuesday all too soon evolved into Fat Tuesday.
Some cultures observe “Carnaval” or “Carnival,” meaning “to take away meat” or “farewell to meat.” These festival periods last from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. Like Shrove Tuesday, the pre-fasting time turned into untamed celebrations and balls, sometimes including costumes. Mardi Gras adopted carnival balls, often bookending the period with galas.
Over time, people became more loose and free with their morals, believing they could just atone during Lent. Unfortunately, many party goers stopped participating in the time of fasting and repenting afterwards. Cultures twisted the solemn day of confessing into a time of free sinning. This behavior, especially for Christians, is not God-pleasing or Biblical at all.
Romans 13:13-14 states:
“Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”
Today, some Christians still abstain from favorite items such as sweets, pop, candy, chocolate, and other treats or food instead of participating in a full fast. Many Catholics still practice the tradition of giving up meat during Lent, eating only fish during the season. It reminds them of the sacrifice Christ made for us, giving up His life so that we may live eternally with him in paradise.
Only when we understand our sinfulness are ready to accept Christ as our savior. Easter Sunday is His triumph over sin and death. Through baptism, we die with Jesus on the cross, thus sharing in Christ’s victory at His resurrection.
May you have a blessed Lenten Season. I pray we revel, not in things of this world, but in the glory of our risen Savior.
But that’s just my 2 cents.