Unless one has lived in a city such as New Orleans (or Mobile, AL, or Rio de Janeiro) it is difficult to comprehend the total madness that consumes the city in the annual observance of Mardi Gras. Today is Fat Tuesday, which is the climax of weeks of parades and revelry around which the whole city’s life revolves beginning on the twelfth night after Christmas. It costs the city millions of dollars, but is the event around which the whole city’s annual life revolves—and it is sacred to most of the traditional residents. I lived in New Orleans as a pastor for six years, and early on challenged it in a small publication, and was taken aside and rebuked by a very respected gentleman from our congregation and exhorted: “Pastor Henderson, I know you mean well, but you are not from here, and you need to know that Mardi Gras is ours. Leave it alone!” So there.

Here’s the background. Mardi Gras takes place during the church’s liturgical season of Epiphany. When the church began to develop the liturgical year its purpose was to annually remind the church of major dimensions of the Christian faith. It begins with Advent, which is the celebration of the birth of Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. That is followed (beginning twelve days after Christmas) by Epiphany. Epiphany refers to the appearance of the star which summoned a group of astrologers from outside the Palestinian-Jewish community to come seeking to understand what was the meaning of the cosmic event that they understood to be one born to be king of the Jews. That season is, then, followed by Lent, which is a season of spiritual penitence, and preparation for the observance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Easter is, then, followed by the long season of Trinity, which brings it again to Advent.

But, back to Epiphany: In its origin and essence, Epiphany was to be a reminder of  God’s love for the nations of the world, of those “still walking in darkness” who had never heard of his love for them. It was to be a reminder that the church is to be the missionary arm of the Holy Trinity. It was to be a time of reflection on the church role in God’s love for every nation, tongue, and tribe. But it is here that we encounter the travesty that is Mardi Gras. Rather than reflect of that event which summoned spiritually hungry and curious astrologers to Bethlehem, it rather became an occasion to co-opt the image of the oriental wise-men and subvert all of that into an occasion of revelry, parades, and social elites creating exclusive clubs/krewes with their own parade floats, and balls, to become the high point of the year.

Anything having to do with the church’s mission, or of the spiritual hungering of those outside of the Christian community, was totally lost in such a distortion. Mardi Gras, rather, became a time of revelry, a civic orgy and excess which consumes the city for all those weeks.

Then … tonight in New Orleans it all comes to a climax with the two most prestigious krewes having their balls. At midnight, Mardi Gras is over. The city will, right away, clean up tons of debris and wash down the streets, and at 6:00 a.m. on Ash Wednesday, throngs will go to the Roman Catholic cathedral to begin their season of penitence, have the mark of the cross placed on their foreheads, and, ostensibly renew their devotion (don’t count on it!). It’s a weird, but entrenched perversion of a liturgical season.

The season of Epiphany is, may I remind you, a time refresh the church calling to its mission.



About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge