Fat Tuesday and Lent

When we hear the term “Fat Tuesday,” an occasion more commonly known by the French name “Mardi Gras,” we often think of scenes of debauchery, gluttony, and sinful partying. But this image is more of a current rendition of this traditionally spiritually fueled day. While today there is more emphasis on beads, alcohol, and parties, the Fat Tuesday was originally meant to be the last preparation for the Lenten season. The actual festival still starts the day after Epiphany and is called “Carnival” in many countries. Coming from the Latin words carne vale, meaning “farewell to the flesh,” this season serves as preparation for the fasting of Lent and abstaining from meat. There is traditionally a season of parties that commemorate the arrival of the newborn King.

These celebrations would include meat and items like pancakes that would consume the dairy products that could not be used during Lent. My favorite is what is known as the “King’s Cake,” which is baked in a circle to remind us of the circular routes that the Three Wise Men took to avoid and confuse King Herod, knowing he wanted to kill the child King. Originally, colored beans were baked inside the cake (modern ones will have a small plastic baby representing Christ). The guest who discovered the beans would find him- or herself named king for the day and would also host the following year’s party.

It is no coincidence that the colors for Mardi Gras are always the purple, green, and gold. These liturgical colors symbolize justice, faith, and power respectively. While modern celebrating patrons do not slaughter a fattened calf to eat on the last day it is allowed before the Lenten sacrifice, the city of New Orleans still respects the purpose of the day by ending its parties at midnight and sending battalions of street sweepers to push the crowds out of the French Quarter immediately as Lent begins.

Despite the raucous parties and general disregard for morals that are present today, we should look to the history and purpose of Fat Tuesday, a history of which we still see remnants, and frame our minds in that manner. What feels like just days ago we celebrated the birth of our Savior. A few days after, we honored the day that commemorates the kings of distant lands recognizing the infant child as the newborn King. Sometimes it seems so sudden that we go from celebrating the birth and coming of the King to reflecting on the Passion and the sacrifice that He would later make for us all. Perhaps these are celebrated so close to one another for good reason: in His birth we found our hope; in His death we find our salvation.

So, we should celebrate and have a party on the last day(s) of this joyous season, but the reason we celebrate so loudly is that we know how His life culminated, a gift on which we will spend 40 days reflecting. Enjoy the King’s Cake, eat the fattened calf, and celebrate Christ coming into the world, because the next day (or at midnight if the street sweepers get to you first) we begin the true celebration of something real and beautiful. We will ponder this sacrifice and abstain from pleasures to bring greater focus upon it, because the gift of salvation through the cross cannot be celebrated by a mere party. No, it takes much more than that.

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