Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Biblical Rationale for Lent and Its Origins in the Early Church: Addressing the Scandals of Mardi Gras

Jim West points out that, once again, some people in New Orleans are doing their best to pervert Mardi Gras, and, by extension, Lent. However, I strongly disagree with his conclusion that Lent is meaningless. Here I want to respond to my friend by revisiting some material I covered around this time last year.

This might seem like an overly long response to a short little post over on his site. But his comments are an expression of an attitude many non-Catholics have. As Mardi Gras stories hit the web today, many will have similar thoughts to those he expressed. Here then I want to take Jim's post as an opportunity to respond to non-Catholic perspectives on Lent.

The Scandal of Mardi Gras

First, here's Jim's post in full:
Want to expose yourself for little plastic beads?  No problem.  Want to stumble the streets in a drunken stupor?  Have at.  Want to do it with mobs of other like minded people?  There’s a place for you!  It’s New Orleans Mardis Gras… ostensibly the last ‘big party day’ before the season of ‘Lent’ commences.
So go an act as wickedly as you like… you can ‘repent’ during ‘Lent’ and then you can do it all over again next year.
[Which fact shows beyond doubt that neither repentance nor Lent are meaningful in any truly spiritual sense for the massa perditionis].
I enjoy Jim's blog. Of course, I don't always agree with him--would you really expect a Catholic to agree with everything on blog named after Zwingli?! But nonetheless, Jim is a friend, a believer, and he frequently offers thoughtful commentary on various theological and contemporary issues.

Having attended Protestant educational institutions for much of my academic career, I understand where he is coming from on this issue. Indeed, to non-Catholics, Lent appears to represent the very worst of Catholicism. It confirms their suspicion that Catholicism is about works-righteousness. The hypocrisy of abuses of Mardi Gras in particular reinforces the view that Catholicism is merely a "cultural" expression of Christianity without real personal commitment to Jesus.

Here however I must dissent strongly from Jim's opinion. Despite the abuses, Lent is a very important season.

"By no means!"

Jim seems to be saying that because some people abuse Mardi Gras and Lent that invalidates the entire tradition? But the logic here seems problematic.

Because it has become a commercialized event for many people in our society, should we eliminate Christmas?

Because Easter has been claimed as a marketing bonanza for chocolate companies, should we abandon it altogether?

Because Good Friday has become an opportunity for the media to run their stupidest stories about Christianity, should we cease to observe it?

As Paul might say, μὴ γένοιτο! ("By no means!")

Lent is an amazing time of year if one observes it properly. It's about challenging ourselves to be detached from the things of this world and focus more completely on Jesus!

It's certainly not about repenting for a wicked Mardi Gras! I'd like to ask those people in New Orleans who make such a spectacle of themselves what they are doing for Lent. "Nothing"--that's the answer you're likely to hear. So let's not let these rabble-rousers become the poster-children for Lent: they have no intention of truly entering into a truly Lenten spirit.

A Seasonal Period of Fasting: A Biblical Notion

In fact, the idea of a seasonal period of repentance, accompanied by "afflicting oneself"--i.e., fasting and abstinence--is in fact entirely rooted in the biblical text and Jewish tradition. In fact, it was precisely the Fall feasts--Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that were associated with such penitential reflection.

In fact, I would insist that a Christianity without a liturgical calendar and without seasonal fasting is an unbiblical form of the Christian faith. Let me explain.

Jesus' Command to Fast

Indeed, Jesus presupposes his disciples will fast! Let me just highlight two passages:
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day (τότε νηστεύσουσιν ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ) (Mark 2:18-20).
And when you fast (Ὅταν δὲ νηστεύητε), do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 5:16-18).
Notice Jesus doesn't simply allow for fasting, he expects his disciples will fast.

Roots in the Old Testament and Judaism

Indeed, the practice of fasting and of "afflicting oneself" in penance has deep roots in the Old Testament and Judaism.

Such practices were especially associated with Yom Kippur:
 “And it shall be a statute to you for ever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves, and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you; 30 for on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord. 
The reference here is obviously to penitential self-denial, especially abstinence from food, e.g., fasting. That this is how this passage was understood is abundantly clear when one reads the Mishna. The rabbis explain: "On the Day of Atonement, eating, drinking, washing, anointing, putting on sandals, and marital intercourse are forbidden" (m. Yoma 8:1).

The Antiquity of the Pre-Easter Fast

It is no wonder then that, from the earliest times, Christians have observed a seasonal period of fasting.

The observance of a pre-Easter period of penance has deep roots in the early Church. Eusebius records a letter written by Irenaeus (2nd cent.) to the bishop of Rome, Victor I, in which he talks about the fact that there was controversy in the early Church as to how "the fast" should be celebrated.

Note that while there was a debate about how long exactly "the fast" should be practiced, there was apparently no question in any one's mind that there should be some sort of period of penance prior to the annual celebration of the Lord's death and resurrection. Irenaeus also testifies to the antiquity of this practice.
"For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some, moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night. 13. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely that they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode. Yet all of these lived none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith" (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5, 24, 12).

So where did the terminology "Lent" come from? "Lent" is an old English word for "Spring". Of course, for Christians it is more than a recognition of the changing of seasons, it is a call for a change of heart.

Last year I did an hour-long radio interview on the practice of Lent on Catholic Answers radio, the podcast of which can be heard here.

In addition, to that interview I can also mention some helpful resources. For a great overview of some of the issues relating to Lent, see this fine piece by Jimmy Akin. I'd also highly recommend the excellent article from the Catholic Encyclopedia which is available for free over at inimitable NewAdvent.org. In addition, my friend Taylor Marshall has a helpful overview of the fast prescriptions for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday on his site.

Finally, as I explained in the interview I linked to above, Lent is NOT about simply saying "No"--it's about saying "Yes". If Lent is simply understood in terms of a dour season or as a kind of spiritual "ultimate challenge" (e.g., an attempt at some ridiculously difficult penance for the sake of accomplishment), one would miss the whole point of the season.

Lent is about saying "Yes"--yes to loving God with all that we have and all that we are. True, this does involve saying "no" to certain things we may be attached to, but more than anything else, it is a "yes"--a yes to refusing to "gratify the desires of the flesh" (cf. Gal 5:15), in order to live a life more devoted to Christ our Lord.

I always turn to the story of Jesus and the rich young man as a lesson for the need to learn self-denial. As is well known, the rich young man in Mark 10:17-22 kept the commandments but ended up being unable to follow Jesus because of his attachment to his wealth. The story underscores not Jesus' desire to impose arbitrary demands upon us, but his deep love: "And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, 'You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.'" The man went away sad because he could not part with his wealth, the obstacle Jesus knew he had placed in the way of holiness.

This season let us ask the Lord to give us the grace to give ourselves more completely to him. Let the Lenten penances we undertake be a training in righteousness. Let us learn to love him more than we love ourselves, knowing that his call to self-denial is an expression of his love for us--a love that frees us from this world and its cares--so that we may not walk away from him sad.


James H said...

Let me if I can stick up for New Orleans a tad here as well as the rest of Louisiana

What a person sees occuring on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras is just a very small picture of the whole with many of those folks being from out of town.

While there is feasting, and drinking, and eating in other parts of the city as to the parades it was my experience it was a lot more moderated than what one see down in the quarter. On the whole I never saw much that would be objectionable to a family.

So just saying. What you see occuring uptown, out in Metarie etc is not going is different.

So I think the typical Catholic Metro New Orleans resident that is a Mass going Catholic has a proper balance here

Galactic Catholic said...

Great Post! Being from South Louisiana, you know that Mardi Gras time is Family time and preparation for a great Lent celebrated together.

Micah said...

I'm a transplant to Louisiana (Shreveport). I've lived here 3.5 years and I've still never been to New Orleans! I certainly wouldn't go during Mardi Gras!

Anyway, one year, while working for a local Catholic parish and answering the non-stop "what time is Ash Wednesday Mass? Can I just come and get ashes or do I have to go to Mass?" calls, I heard the phone ring and saw a coworker answer. We both looked at the caller id. It was a call from one of the local strip clubs I sign myself when I drive past. Someone was calling from the strip club inquiring about our Ash Wednesday Mass time! Knowing how many people do just what the Ash Wednesday Gospel says not to do, coming for ashes as an outward sign with no inward meaning, I really hoped that this was someone who had just come to the realization that what he or she was doing was wrong and who wanted to repent.

Lent helps many people. It's helped me. God has reached into my life and transformed me during Lent. I hope He does the same for everyone. We can't judge Lent meaningless or ineffective any more than we can judge meaningless or ineffective a Jewish rabbi preaching to tax collectors and sinners 2000 years ago.

Edward Pothier said...

In addressing the scandals of Mardi Gras, it might be helpful to stress the value of praying with Rosary beads over the exposing of breasts for New Orleans Mardi Gras beads!

John Bergsma said...

Is there any proof that the people that celebrate "Mardi Gras" on Bourbon street are practicing Catholics, or Catholics at all? I expect the percentage is pretty small.