"It's not always appropriate to get silly, but when you can, it's a wonderful thing... the seeming irreverence is actually a joyful expression of a very profound reverence.”
The Last Blast
Carnival . . . Mardi Gras . . . Shrove Tuesday. Whatever we call it, it’s the last blast before the solemn season of Lent begins. For some, this pre-Lenten ritual involves parades, music, food, beads, and a full celebration. For some, it is the ritual of that last night before Alleluias are put to bed and the meat is cleaned out of the pantry for forty days.
What would happen if our churches used this time for family gatherings of food, fun, and formation? Lisa Puccio, Director of Family Ministry at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Texas hosts a party with pancake pudding (like bread pudding). Everyone gathers for a Dixieland band, dancing, a children’s decorated umbrella parade, and throwing beads. Other churches might decorate masks, make jester hats, do a pancake flip relay, parade around the fellowship hall, or bury the Allelulias.
The Origins of Mardi Gras
Medieval Christians developed carnivals (Carnem, vale = farewell, meat or carnem levare = the removal of meat) to celebrate with exuberance one last time before the rigorous Lenten fast. Although Lenten regulations varied with time and place, no meat, butter, eggs, milk or cheese were generally allowed during the 40 days. In addition to fasting, Christians were not permitted to hold weddings, dances, or festivals during Lent, the season for prayer and penance. So medieval Christians began to observe days of celebration, to hold rowdy parades, masquerades, and dances, and to fling themselves into festivities one last time before Lent.
Some pre-Lenten festivities are still held today around the world, starting months before the start of Lent. Venice has its gondola parades, New Orleans its floats, and street parties in Rio de Janeiro. A Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday of the French tradition) celebration provides an excellent opportunity to bid farewell to the joyous word “alleluia.” (See Building Faith article Saying Goodbye to the Alleluia.)
Traditionally, since Lent was to be a meatless 40 days, households were to use up all milk, eggs and fat to prepare for the strict fasting of Lent. These ingredients were made into pancakes, a meal which came to symbolize preparation for the discipline of Lent, from the English tradition. “Shrove” comes from the verb “to shrive” (to confess and receive absolution) prior to the start of the Lenten season. Hence, Shrove Tuesday on our unofficial church calendar.
Mardi Gras Talent Show and Eucharist
Donald Schell, founder of All Saints Company shares the following tradition:
“For a number of years when I was at St. Gregory's of Nyssa in San Francisco, we fused a Mardi Gras talent show with a Didache table Eucharist, using our fairly straightforward of the Eucharistic prayer from the Didache (incidentally what we have set in verse in the hymn 'Father, we thank thee who hast planted...'). So we had a New Orleans/Caribbean themed potluck that began with blessing the first cup, blessing and sharing the Eucharistic bread, continued with dinner, talent show and Dixieland band, and concluded with the Didache's final cup."
Meeting Families on Mardi Grar
Lisa Brown, Formation Specialist at St. Paul's in Pittsburgh offers the following:
“Society and the families we deal with are so stressed and so busy, that sometimes one of the greatest gifts we can give them is that of laughter and fun. Our Epiphany Service attendance doubled once people realized that we were going to hand out sparklers and parade around outside! To me, this isn't any sort of watering down of our convictions, or trivializing religious observations, but rather giving people a tremendous gift - peace, laughter, love and togetherness. It's not *always* appropriate to get silly, but when you can, it's a wonderful thing. I just always hope that those I deal with recognize that my seeming irreverence is actually a joyful expression of a very profound reverence."
Sharon Ely Pearson is a 30+ year Christian formation veteran, currently serving as an editor and the Christian Formation Specialist for Church Publishing Incorporated. Wife, mother, soon-to-be-grandmother, and author, she enjoys connecting people with each other and the resources they need for growing in the knowledge and love of Jesus.
Did you enjoy this article? Consider subscribing to Building Faith and get every new post by email. It’s free and always will be. Subscribe to Building Faith.