Mardi Gras. Everyone down here in New Orleans is enamored with it. I enjoyed… some of it. Like last night at the Orpheus parade when my son was on my shoulders squealing with delight as a giant seven-trailer float built to look like a train rolled by. This morning wasn’t as much fun. It was freezing cold. My family went down to see a truck parade that follows the main Rex parade. We were standing around in the pre-parade staging ground. There were very few other people. I went home to get a hat and a bag to put our beads in. When I got back, my wife and sons had collected fifty pounds of beads and plastic junk because there was nobody else to throw it to. I figured we could just leave forty-five pounds of it on the ground since the city of New Orleans would already be sweeping through to clean up everything. But my wife said no because that would be littering. So now we have about three hundred pounds of beads and plastic junk in our house. I’m really trying not to hate Mardi Gras.
Part of it might be the fact that I’m an introvert who’s already in a job where socializing continuously with college students is my primary task. I love sitting one on one with students and talking about their lives. That’s one of my favorite things in the world to do. But standing around in a crowd full of mostly drunk people dancing and hollering and clamoring for beads? Not exactly my thing. Plus, Mardi Gras has been very disruptive to the momentum for our campus ministry this semester. Due to the religious devotion to it down here and the traffic jams that result, we have a tradition of canceling worship on the Sunday night before Mardi Gras. We also canceled our small group Bible study the Thursday night before Mardi Gras. Students down here have been mostly psychologically unavailable for the last two weeks, which is an eternity in college semester time.
And yet, I’ve been convicted by my curmudgery regarding this holiday. When I look at all the beads and plastic junk flying all over St. Charles Avenue, the word that comes to mind for me is waste. I don’t always manage my time very well, but it’s torture to me to do something that feels like a waste of time. You can only go to so many parades before they start to get redundant. Other people seem to notice differences in the parades and talk about which ones are their favorites. I just see the same bunch of goofy-looking floats and people in masks throwing beads.
But maybe this curmudgery is my problem and not Mardi Gras’ problem. Before I had a cold and grouchy morning this morning, I was going to write something about the theology of Mardi Gras. For those who have never been here, it’s not the debaucherous pit of sin that it’s been stereotyped as. There are a fair number of drunk college students. But they weren’t any less dressed than they usually are. Many of the people watching the parades were families with little kids like mine. One thing that’s true about Mardi Gras is it’s extravagant. When I’m wearing my curmudgeon hat, all that extravagance just looks like waste. But then I wonder: isn’t that what God’s grace is supposed to look like? Wasteful extravagance? Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding that had run out of wine. He wasn’t saving lives; he was making people drunk. Most of his parables about the kingdom of God are about lavish wedding banquets.
It had never occurred to me before this year that the season of Carnival might be equal in importance to the season of Lent. Carnival is the name for the season in the Christian calendar from epiphany to Ash Wednesday. It’s a time of feasting before the time of fasting. The name Carnival is derived from the Latin carne vale (“farewell to meat”). Down here, the whole season is often called Mardi Gras even though Mardi Gras is just French for Fat Tuesday. Perhaps the extravagance of Carnival has as much to teach a scrooge like me as the austerity of the Lent season.
For the past month, my family (mostly my wife and sons) have consumed about eight or so king cakes. They’re named for the “three kings” who visited baby Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. They are extravagantly smothered in sugar and filled with carbs. There is no nutritional value to them whatsoever. But maybe I need to learn to eat king cake when it’s time to eat king cake and fast when it’s time to fast. I don’t think Jesus intended to create the scrooges that many Christians like me have become. He partied with sinners. He praised a woman for dumping an expensive bottle of perfume on his head. He celebrated wasting time and food.
When I’m honest, the main reason I hate Mardi Gras is because I don’t know how to party. To me, parties are an oppressive performance stage in which I’m supposed to impress other people and build strategic alliances. I don’t know how to turn off my 24/7 platform-building, image-sculpting business mode. Fasting is easier than feasting for me, because I associate feasting with my lifelong hell of trying to win people over and get them to read my blog or come to my church. I’d much rather spend all day in solitude with God, not eating or talking to other people. But I think God wants me to learn how to feast without trying to make it into something useful and strategic. God wants me to learn how to enjoy other peoples’ company without the pressure of needing to “win” them in some kind of way. So learning not to hate Mardi Gras and other parties like it is part of my discipleship training. And my sons and my wife are helping me learn.