I confess that I hate Mardi Gras--please don't hate me. I woke up this morning to a story on NPR about the goings-on in New Orleans, and the so-called "Rex" was on-air declaring that this is a time "given over to pleasure". That sounds about right: for most people Mardi Gras is all about hedonistic self-indulgence rather than preparation for Lent. I suspect that many who head to warmer climes this time of year to celebrate Mardi Gras don't even know what Lent is, or why this Mardi in particular should be known as Gras.
Soon after hearing that story, I took my daughter to her preschool, where the Kiwanis had set up a huge tent--they were busy making thousands of pancakes for the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake fest. For them it's all about the pleasure of syrup, I guess, and fundraising.
I had a rather nice time in my Plato seminar this afternoon, where pleasure didn't come up a single time--though it wouldn't have hurt if it had, since I trust Plato's judgment when it comes to the place of pleasure in the grand scheme of things.
But this evening, when I went to pick up my children at their "religious education" class at my parish, I was a little surprised to find them in the middle of their own Mardi Gras party. All the kids had tons of stringed beads around their necks, and they were eating some kind of weird bread with prizes baked into it. I'm not sure this is on the syllabus for religious education, but I decided it was OK in the end since the theme seemed to be not so much the decadence of Mardi Gras generally but education about the need to help the folks in New Orleans in particular. But still.
What happens to the value of a season like Lent, if the point becomes the size and success of the party you have right before it? It's not unlike the secular commercial hype that has ruined Christmas. There used to be a nice period of preparation for Lent--what the Church called Septuagesimatide, the two weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday. Septuagesima Sunday was not a time for partying and getting fat on pancakes, but of prayerful preparation.
I'm not one of those folks who thinks that Lent is all about being sullen, giving up your favorite candy treats, and putting pennies into a cardboard box every day. Lent is, in some ways, a very joyful time--but joyful in an expectant, preparatory way, not a debauched, hedonistic way (obviously). But I do think that our debauched materialist culture has, in its typical way, taken over something that it doesn't fully understand. When that happens, things are always polluted and debased. It's inevitable, I suppose, but it's still too bad.
Don't even get me started on Easter eggs, bunnies, and peeps.