Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Reclaiming Mardi Gras Spirituality

The last Sunday before Lent we celebrated Mardi Gras in worship. When I pitched this idea to the Worship Committee, they looked at me strangely--perhaps they thought I had suggested we all parade half naked and drunk down the church aisle. While this might improve attendance, I reminded them that Mardi Gras is a church festival and something we can celebrate appropriately and with joy in the sanctuary. I could tell by their faces that they wondered how I would pull this off. Our youth traveled to New Orleans for our National Youth Gathering last summer, so this seemed to be the year to try.

The children passed out beads; we recalled the history of the Mardi Gras festival dating back as far as 1000 C.E. as a way to prepare for the fasting of Lent; we learned that the King cake came from the Epiphany celebration of the three Kings who came and brought gifts to Jesus; we enjoyed a power-point of our youth in New Orleans; we paraded around as we sang, "Oh When the Saints..." while the drums kept the beat and the trombones helped us all, the "frozen chosen," move just a little bit. Some in the culture may have co-opted our festival into a half- naked drunken parade in downtown St. Louis, but that is no reason for us to abandon our rich history.

It seems we have come full circle. The early church co-opted cultural events by setting the times of Christian festivals around pagan celebrations: the celebration of the birth of Christ at the time of the festival of the winter solstice is a great example. Now the culture today seems to be taking the best of who we are as religious bodies and co-opting it for consumer purposes. I recently saw an ad for Cadillac that concluded with this encouragement to purchase: ignite your soul. Walmart beckons us to buy with these words: Live better. It seems to me that Nike must have gleaned their slogan from Luke 10: 1-4. Jesus sent out the 70 with these words: Go on your way. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals which seem to be the biblical Just do it. I was eating a quick bite with Son#2 at a popular coffee and sandwich chain recently and saw a long narrow banner with these words listed at the top: refresh, renew, re-energize. At the bottom of the banner was a gender-neutral person with their arms and face lifted upward, eyes closed with white swirls above their head. In this setting, the swirls could have been steam from coffee. I asked my son if I could hang the banner in church for a Lenten theme and the swirls could be the Holy Spirit. "Sure," he replied. He got it immediately. There appeared to be no difference between what they are offering and what we are offering- except of course, Jesus Christ.

These ads all reaffirm the message that studies confirm—people are “spiritual, but not religious” and every product they consume whether it is a cup of coffee or a luxury car, can help them feel like they are spiritual. Our Mardi Gras celebration shows me that people hunger to reclaim the deep meaning behind the spiritual words. Isaiah asks, Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? (55.2) We offer the redeeming Christ who is bread and satisfies for eternal life.

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