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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Complicated Relationship Between Baptists and Mardi Gras

When I was in middle and high school in south Louisiana, the rumor was that we got three days off for Mardi Gras because the teachers would party a little too hard on Tuesday and need Wednesday off to recover. While I doubt there was any truth to that speculation, the thought of my teachers and my friends' parents participating in some sort of annual bacchanal was funny and alien to me. In my home, Mardi Gras may as well have been another secular holiday for all the meaning and impact it had on us. Certainly there was a multi-colored cake and beads hanging in the live oaks in my yard after the annual neighborhood parade, but there was absolutely no spiritual significance to the mini-vacation.
     When I was a student in high school my local Baptist church's youth group hosted a Disciple Now! event from the Friday before Mardi Gras through the following Sunday based on the fact that the students had the following Monday through Wednesday off from school. In my ignorance I thought that this was a brilliant use of a few days off from school - we could have a major youth group event AND get three days off from school to relax. It never crossed my mind, nor the minds of my friends, that neither Mardi Gras nor the Lenten season that follows it had any meaningful spiritual value - the days off from school were just a gift.
     I've come to love Lent, but to loathe Mardi Gras. Don't get me wrong - I think that the celebratory season of Epiphany is (to our detriment) largely ignored in most Baptist traditions and needs to be emphasized. We leave the joy of Christmas and the mystery of the Incarnation too soon (much like we leave the power of Easter too soon, too). What makes me cringe when I see images of people wearing silly hats and beads and carrying umbrellas with "Mardi Gras" on them IN JULY is that Mardi Gras, much Christmas and Easter, have become something other than the spirit-informing seasons they were meant to be. Mardi Gras has become an episode of debauchery en masse and a testimony to the baser human desires to revel in wildness. The sad fact is that I could excuse some of these tendencies if they were paired with penitence, contrition, and repentance during the Lenten season. Instead, Mardi Gras is experienced most often as just one party among many. It is the same as my Baptist experience without the holiday - it is a spirituality-vacant event that has no consequences or meaning beyond its own self-inflicted hangover. 
     Things are further complicated by the resistance my spiritual relatives have to anything authoritarian. We are unfamiliar with the church calendar and the Great Story of Christianity because of our Baptist bedrock principle of autonomy of the local congregation and of the believer. Our independence has become ignorance, I'm afraid.
     This complication is easy to overcome, though, in light of the amazing power of living through a Lenten fast. I am no suggesting that Baptists adopt all Catholic or Anglican or any other set of Lenten traditions; rather I encourage my Baptist brothers and sisters to set aside about 40 days to concentrate on prayer, to feel the pangs of hunger that are a most primal motivator, and to feel the oppressive darkness that the Light of the World came to chase away.
     Let's be honest. We're used to setting aside 40 days to pray and fast. We'll have a mini-Lent to Pray for America, to pray to end abortions, or to find our spiritual purpose. Perhaps it's time for Baptists to try something novel - let's spend 40 days in intense prayer, some sort of restriction on our "autonomy of the believer," and increased communion with the wider Christian world. We can keep our relationship status with Mardi Gras as "it's complicated."

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