Most people in the United States have heard of Mardi Gras. We may not know much. It may simply bring to mind New Orleans and the idea of flashy Mardi Gras beads. (Laissez les bons temps rouler is a Cajun French phrase often associated with Mardi Gras that means “let the good times roll.”)
For some, though, Mardi Gras is inextricably tied to the Christian tradition. Whether seen as some part of the time stretching from Epiphany to the day before Ash Wednesday or simply as the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, it is a time of celebration and feasting.
While in New Orleans Mardi Gras is usually associated with (sometimes risque) parties, parades, and feasting, in the Christian tradition it is also known as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday—a final day to eat rich foods before the penitential season of Lent begins. Why bring all this up? Well, it’s coming up on Tuesday. For me, though, I’m really thinking about the following day: Ash Wednesday.
While I attended Catholic and Episcopalian schools when I was in elementary and middle school, my family didn’t attend a liturgical church or follow the liturgical calendar. I knew Lent was happening, but it never really impacted my life unless you count the fish in my school lunch on Fridays. At home we celebrated Christmas and Easter, but not Advent or Lent.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate the idea of setting aside extended periods of time to focus on different aspects of my spiritual walk with God. One thing that has really helped has been the Biola CCCA’s Advent and Lent devotionals.
Last year I took another step. Since I attend what might be described liturgically as a “low church,” I found a local church with an Ash Wednesday service that I could attend. I won’t be changing churches any time soon, but I felt that God was calling me to a season of reflection and self-examination. Starting by attending an Ash Wednesday service seemed like an appropriate first step. So I put my son on the bus early that morning and headed to church.
I hadn’t been to an Ash Wednesday service in decades. Actually, I probably haven’t been to a highly liturgical service in decades. But that day was a gift. As I entered the sanctuary, the assembled congregation was quiet and reflective—just what you’d expect on a day focused on reflection and penitence. The solemnity pierced my heart. I knew that was precisely where I needed to be.
For those who attend a liturgical service every week, the repetition of familiar prayers and readings that the church has used for centuries may become common place, repetitious, or even rote. But for me, that day, there was a beauty in participating in something larger than myself.
That day, I listened to extended portions of Scripture. I received God’s Word as its original audience would have: not by sight, but by sound.
That day, I said prayers of confession that reminded me of who I am and how I fall short, of who God is and the grace, love and forgiveness that are available through Jesus.
That day, I responded to the Psalm: “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” I prayed for the work of the Spirit in my life, that I might love God and others as Jesus did.
That day, I received communion remembering the great price that the elements represent: the body and blood of my Savior.
I’ll be going back this year. But beyond that, I’ll once again be reading the Lenten devotionals, spending time in self-examination and confession, as well as fasting on certain days.
These aren’t ways to seek God’s approval. I’m not checking something off of a spiritual “to do list.” But just as I talked about how spiritual disciplines have been shaping me as they are combined with my study of the Biblical text, these practices connect us to the wider church across time and space. They too have the power to shape us:
- Confession highlights my need for Jesus and the work of the Spirit. It doesn’t allow me to take my sin lightly. In Psalm 32:5 David says “then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
- Fasting reminds me that everything I have is a gift of God. It develops in me, at least in a tiny way, an empathy with and compassion for those who do not have daily bread. It forces me to my knees seeking Jesus, “the bread of life” (John 6:35). It calls me to action serving “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45).
Like I said, this isn’t something that we have to do. I’d love to have you join me in some way on this Lenten journey this year anyway. In a culture that often focuses on the good times of Mardi Gras, last year I found that as I slowed down and focused on my relationship with God during Lent, He worked in my heart in some amazing ways. Out of this season of reflection and penitence came a deeper and more profound understanding of “the good times.” Feasts and parties may be fun but the presence of God is where we truly experience joy. Laissez les temps joyeux rouler.
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