Today is Fat Tuesday - Mardi Gras - Carnival. Historically Protestants haven't done much with this feast day except maybe eat and drink too much if we're going out with others. Or maybe we have a modest "Shrove Tuesday" donut party. But we don't go in for the wild stuff because 500 years ago we decided that our way of being the church was going to be different from theirs. And while I would never call into question the insights and importance of the Protestant Reformation and the emerging Reformed Tradition out of which we were born, it is clear to me that over the generations a shallow and ill-informed anti-Catholicism came to be the rule of the day. So we don't do this or that because they do - even if their rituals are rich with symbols and their sacramental theology liberating.
I bump up against the remnant of such limited thinking every time Lent arrives - and nothing happens at Mardi Gras. I am not proposing a week long descent into bacchanalia as takes place in New Orleans or Rio. Nor am I interested in encouraging irresponsible excess of any kind. Rather, what captivates me about Mardi Gras as it morphs into Ash Wednesday and Lent is the rhythm it offers us - that ebb and flow of feast and fast, festival and introspection, light and dark - that is so missing from both the Reformed tradition and much of contemporary life. Carl Jung, the founder of depth psychology, once noted that whenever life giving and generative human rituals are corrupted or discarded, society creates pathological replacements. The need for these rituals never goes away, but the way we express them can shift from life to death. Think of our culture's obsession with dieting - and eating disorders - and then think back to the once standard rhythm of life guided by feasts AND fasting.
Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, one of our era's most creative and insightful Christian educators, puts it like this in To Dance with God. Nobody likes thinking about Lent - most of us hate it. So how do we get ourselves ready for this hard time? "By doing the opposite of dying? Carnival. Carnival precedes any efforts we might make at dying by allowing us to live in a compensatory period, briefly, in a kind of recklessness and daring make-believe way... it sets free for a time our negative, irrational and unacceptable aspects and, by reminding ourselves of the dark and steamy side of our human nature, gives warning to what global disasters the unconscious is able to create if left separate from our conscious selves." Carnival - the season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday - gives us a chance to fully feel our flesh before putting it away for a season. Ms. Mueller-Nelson concludes: "For all its look of madness and its possible danger, carnival honors all that wells up from the forgotten level of our souls which, on every other day of the year we would rather not look at or recognize, but which does need a period of consideration and celebration."
One of my deepest hopes for the Reformed tradition is that we would find a way to reclaim - and reform - this tradition of balanced living. Not just with Mardi Gras (although that's a great place to start!) but with the day and the whole year. It isn't foreign to our way of being the church IF we recall that through our Jewish roots we have inherited a set of spiritual practices that are at least 4,000 years old. And we are at least cousins to the wisdom of our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox kin, too. What's more, our own Congregational history affirms a return to a way of living and being that honors the circle of life on Mother Earth. In 1884, Garett Horder took the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier, an American Quaker, and brought it into the Congregational hymnbook at "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind." The penultimate verse is as follows: "Drop thy still dews of quietness til all our strivings cease; take from our souls the strain and stress and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace."
Please note: 1) this presumes there is order in our lives, yes? And 2) that the order nurtures peace and beautiful living. It is, of course, a passing nod to both the ancient Jewish and Christian monastic "ordered life" that invited prayer at the start of the day, at noon, at the close of the day and at bed time. You get my point. We at First Church have made a modest commitment to reclaiming the circle of life by consciously celebrating Advent into Christmas and Epiphany as well as Ash Wednesday into Easter and Ascension Sunday. Perhaps one day we will be bold and creative enough to explore a way of welcoming Carnival into our rhythm. Until then, eat a donut (or three) tonight, hoist a pint if your are so inclined, cook a steak, shake your booty and get ready for Lent, because Ash Wednesday comes tomorrow! Join us for our third annual ecumenical fast and Eucharist.