Last year, Ash Wednesday came on February 18. This year, it’s celebrated on February 10.
According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus Christ spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Lent originated as a mirroring of this, fasting 40 days as preparation for Easter.
See also Lent 101 – The Upper Room. So the “40 days of Lent” are supposed to commemorate the 40 days that Jesus spent “wandering in the wilderness.” On a related note, that act by Jesus mirrored the 40 years that the Hebrews – led by Moses – also spent “wandering around.”
But before that 40 days of Lenten “wandering in the wilderness,” there’s one last celebration, one last “blowout.” (The whole Christian – or liturgical – calendar year is pretty much filled with such alternating seasons of celebration and penance…)
For example, Lent is a season devoted to “prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. But that season of self-denial is preceded by “Fat Tuesday.” That’s the day before Ash Wednesday, which means this year Fat Tuesday is February 9.
The French term for Fat Tuesday is Mardi Gras, and Mardi Gras is now a generic term for “Let’s Party!!”
As Wikipedia put it, “Popular practices on Mardi Gras include wearing masks and costumes, overturning social conventions, dancing, sports competitions, parades, debauchery, etc.”
See also A Brief History of Mardi Gras – Photo Essays – TIME, which noted that “Mardi Gras isn’t all nudity and drunken debauchery (though, yes, there is definitely nudity and drunken debauchery).” (Emphasis in original.)
But – as the article noted – the origin of Fat Tuesday was far more spiritual:
In earlier times, people used Lent as a time of fasting and repentance. Since they didn’t want to be tempted by sweets, meat and other distractions in the house, they cleaned out their cabinets. They used up all the sugar and yeast in sweet breads before the Lent season started, and fixed meals with all the meat available. It was a great feast! Through the years Mardi Gras has evolved (in some places) into a pretty wild party with little to do with preparing for the Lenten season of repentance and simplicity.
Lent 101, emphasis added. And incidentally, there are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. That’s because Sundays don’t count in the calculation.
That’s important because it means you can still enjoy whatever it is you’ve given up for Lent. (A fact overlooked by the producers of 40 Days and 40 Nights, as shown at right. That “2002 romantic comedy film” showed the main character in a “period of abstinence from any sexual contact for the duration of Lent.” But as noted, he could have “taken Sundays off.”)
But getting back to the subject at hand… You can see the full set of Bible readings for the day at Ash Wednesday. The highlight – once again – is the Gospel Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. That’s where Jesus warned of “practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”
On that subject, fasting (and abstinence are the usual components of a Lenten discipline. But as Jesus noted, “Do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.” Instead, He said to basically put on a happy face. That way, “your fasting may be seen not by others, but by your Father who is in secret.” (Emphasis added.)
As for almsgiving, Jesus said, “Do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do … so that they may be praised by others.” Instead, “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret.”
Incidentally, that’s where the expression the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing came from. And finally Jesus said this about praying in public:
Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Are we getting the picture here?
The one theme Jesus kept returning to – over and over again – was hypocrisy. That includes – but is not limited to – “the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion.”
I wrote about this whole controversy in On praying in public. I concluded that post with a variation of the classic Henny Youngman one-liner, “Take school prayer… Please!“
But we digress…
If you’re interested in more history on Ash Wednesday see The History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday. That site noted the “pouring of ashes on one’s body” – as an “outer manifestation of inner repentance” – is an ancient practice.
The earliest mention of that practice seems to have come at the end of the Book of Job, “older than any other book of the Bible.” In Job 42:6 – and after he is rebuked by God – Job says, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Not to mention “dressing in sackcloth, a very rough material.” On a related note, see also On Job, the not-so-patient.)
And finally see The ‘Splainer: Ash Wednesday and dirty Christian foreheads, about “washing:”
No one is required to keep the ashes on his or her face after the ritual. But some Christians choose to, perhaps as a reminder to themselves that they are mortal and fallible, while others may choose to leave them on as a witness to their faith in the hope others will ask about them and open a door to sharing their faith.
Here’s wishing you a happy and spiritually-fulfilling Lent!
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Cayman Mardi Gras has now been recognised as one of the island’s National Festivals. Celebrating the traditional Fat Tuesday, they also host a festive Monday Food Festival as well as an all day EDM Ash Wednesday. The event attracts thousands of attendees during the 3 day festival and includes a line up of international celebrities and performers. The Cayman Mardi Gras Festival is slowly becoming a major tourist attraction to the island nation and with the large international presence will attract bigger performing names in the future.
The initial indented quote about Lent is from Wikipedia.
I used the image to the left of the “Let’s party” paragraph in last year’s post. In turn, the image is courtesy of A Brief History of Mardi Gras … TIME. That article includes the caption:
OK, Mardi Gras’ reputation as an alcohol-fueled, nudity-filled bacchanal is not completely unearned. In 1973, a ban was established on Krewe parades in the increasingly rowdy and narrow streets of the French Quarter. In subsequent years, tourists and other drunken fools descended on the Quarter (especially the particularly saucy Bourbon Street) en masse, and the tradition of showing skin for beads began. Native New Orleanians despise the reputation, and rarely venture into the Quarter during Carnival season.
Emphasis added, which means “there’s probably some kind of object lesson there…”
The image “40 days and 40 nights” is courtesy of 40 Days and 40 Nights – Official Site.
For another take on praying in public, see school prayer.
The lower image is courtesy of Lent – Wikipedia. The caption:
Lent celebrants carrying out a street procession during Holy Week [in Granada, Nicaragua.] The violet color is often associated with penance and detachment. Similar Christian penitential practice is seen in other Catholic countries, sometimes associated with mortification of the flesh.
The article added that Lent’s “institutional purpose is heightened in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus … which ultimately culminates in the joyful celebration on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”