Editor’s note: “Matters of faith” is a column that provides local religious leaders a place to write about how their respective faiths provide hope, courage and strength in these modern times.
Happy Mardi Gras! Today is Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to go to a Continuing Education for Catholic Priests Conference in New Orleans the week before Mardi Gras. My friend Fr. Martin and I were able to watch some of the parades that went through the French Quarter. I could not compare them to anything I had ever experienced. The floats were irreverent, making comical and bold statements about issues in New Orleans, including the oil spill and clean-up, Hurricane Katrina, local political leaders, and all of the other things that affected life of a local for the past year.
Historically, Mardi Gras was a time when all of the castes intermingle to prepare for the one thing they had in common and to get whatever out of their system so that they could go feet first into the season of Lent: 40 days of prayer, fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving in preparation for Easter.
Fat Tuesday was the time when people would empty their cupboards of all sugar, since it was customary to not have any sugar or luxury during the Lenten season. The traditional food that people would eat on this day was pancakes. Most Catholics will give up something during Lent, so one may want to overindulge or at least savor for the last time whatever he or she is planning to give up.
This is a personal choice based on what we might think is bad (physically or morally) for us or difficult to do. When many people were smokers, some would give up smoking for the entire 40 days and then pick up the habit on Easter after they had completed the most difficult first 40 days of craving nicotine.
I don’t know what it is that most people give up today. I hear that a lot of folks give up candy, but I think this would be far too easy and therefore spiritually wimpy (I have been told that I don’t appreciate some people’s need for chocolate).
All Catholics are required to abstain from meat on Fridays of Lent. It is customary to eat fish, since at one time meat was a luxury, but fish was common. This doesn’t quite fit our current reality. It wouldn’t be a sacrifice for any of us to have to eat a very expensive piece of fish or gorge ourselves at an all you can eat sushi bar. I encourage my parishioners to either do something or give up something that in the end will bring them closer to Jesus and to bring them in solidarity with the poor. Whatever they do, should involve prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.
I have considered giving up coffee for Lent. When people ask me how many cups I drink, I tell them it is not cups but pots, so I am considering going cold turkey just to see what happens. Will this experience bring me closer to Jesus? I don’t think it will (unless I am killed by my staff) so I will have to double-down on prayer and/or give a generous donation to Catholic Relief Services, which I should do in both cases.
I am discerning this and still have a little time to decide what God’s will is for me. In the past I have attempted to give up all sorts of things, such as TV, soda, meat, wine and beer. All have been a struggle, since it is always easy to make little excuses. I would be rude not to share a glass of wine or beer with a friend. Does not God want us all to be hospitable? Or I am so tired I can’t read, but too antsy to sleep, however watching reruns of the Big Bang Theory, Seinfeld or some PBS program will soothe my tired soul.
Also one might easily go without something, but when we know we are giving up something, it becomes especially attractive.
Believe it or not, people actually look forward to Lent. They like coming to church on Wednesday getting their foreheads smudged with ashes and told, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember you are ashes…” There are the Christmas and Easter Catholics who only come on these days, the happy Catholics. There are also the Ash Wednesday and Good Friday Catholics who only come on these days, the gloomy Catholics. I heard once there was a superstition that if one did not get his ashes on Ash Wednesday something bad would happen to him or her that year. Where do people get these ideas?
We receive the ashes as a sign or a manifestation of our humility before God. If one wants to do penance, we put on sackcloth and ashes (literally and figuratively) and beg for God’s forgiveness. The king of Nineveh and all of his subjects did this when Jonah announced that God would destroy the town. It worked to the joy of the Ninevites and the displeasure of Jonah who hated them and wanted to see God wipe them out.
Lent does have a special meaning for us as consuming Americans. It is bad for our souls to constantly indulge ourselves, to get whatever we want when we want it, and to live with the expectation of this is how the world should be. It is good for our body and for our spirit to fast and abstain. It is good for us to honor the constraints and boundaries that our environment, our relationships, our bodies, our faith and our commitments place upon us.
We currently live in La La Land where everything is available, all resources are perceived to be limitless, and our ecosystems can withstand any abuse. The season of Lent can teach us a lot. Let’s live with less. Let’s simplify our lives not to diminish them but to give more passion and energy to what we truly value.
Rev. Dinsdale is priest at St. Marguerite Catholic Church in Tooele.