The day after Fat Tuesday begins with suffering and self-sacrifice for many people…suffering from a hangover and a sacrificing of much needed sleep in order to make it to work on time. Somehow, I think many of us might be missing the point. For many, Fat Tuesday (English for Mardi Gras) seems to be just another reason to stay out late, drink heavily, expose ourselves, and commit all types of RAI (Random Acts of Immorality). And somehow it’s all excused because hey… it’s Mardi Gras!
Nobody likes to poop on a party, but it is quite obvious that we have lost sight of the true meaning of the festivities. If I thought that this next point would be contested by many, I might actually do a survey to verify it. But if we were to ask the average crowd on Bourbon Street during a Mardi Gras celebration, “What day is tomorrow?” I am willing to bet that many of them would not really have a clue what we were really asking. Midnight on Fat Tuesday is not just the end of the party, it’s the beginning of something much more significant and much more important. It’s the beginning of Lent. The day after Fat Tuesday is Ash Wednesday .
The whole purpose of Fat Tuesday is to feast in order to prepare for the fast of the 40 days of Lent. Traditionally, the feast consisted of fattened calves, dairy, eggs, fat, etc. that all had to be used up before Lent because the fast of Lent required abstaining from those things. This was back when the observed fast was generally stricter than just the “no meat on Fridays, etc.” that it is currently in the United States today. Fat Tuesday also marks the final day of the Carnival festivities, which comes from the words “Carne Vale,” meaning “farewell to the flesh.”
So the spirit of Fat Tuesday is one of preparation for the Lenten season to come. It is a farewell to the flesh. It is about preparing ourselves to die a little more to ourselves during Lent through fasting and abstinence in order to prepare for Good Friday and Easter, the remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And since Easter is the climax of the Christian calendar, it deserves preparation. It is the Easter event that we celebrate most as Christians and, as Catholics, on a smaller scale every Sunday at Mass. So it is only appropriate that we prepare ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually to participate fully in the sacrifice and redemption of the cross. And we should do this for the celebration of the Mass each and every Sunday, but most especially for the Easter Mass. This Easter preparation is what the Church calls Lent.
The early Church, in its wisdom, evolved many of the pagan festivals and holidays existing during that time and turned them into Christian celebrations instead. This was because it was more difficult to kill existing traditions and begin new ones than it was to just change the meaning of the existing traditions. So what it did was take something that had strayed from God’s desires and converted it to a new meaning that pointed it back to God. (Which is pretty neat because that’s exactly what Christ came to do for us; He didn’t come to condemn our hearts, He came to convert them.)
Similarly, Fat Tuesday has its roots in hedonistic pagan rituals and celebrations, but the Church came and gave deeper meaning to them. It said, yes, be thankful for all these things you have, celebrate those, but here is Who you should be thanking: Jesus. And go ahead, live it up and be silly and happy. Fill yourselves with all of this wonderful food tonight, because tomorrow… tomorrow we fast and abstain for 40 days. Tomorrow we prepare for the real and ultimate fulfillment, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Savior. Tomorrow we prepare to receive the eternal food, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And of course with this new Christian purpose, even with all of the feasting and merriment prior to Lent, it was not an excuse to sin. It was a call to conversion from sinful traditions. It was just as much a call to repentance.
Unfortunately, currently we find ourselves very much back in that same situation. Most Mardi Gras celebrations today are a closer resemblance of the ancient hedonistic festivals than the Christian preparation for Lent that they are supposed to be. As Catholics (and other Christians who practice Lent), we must partially blame ourselves for allowing this holy time of year to be overshadowed by a drunken, over-indulgent, high-jacking of our own celebration. Like the early Church Christians, we have to give it meaning again. We have to point it back in the right direction — toward God. We have to allow ourselves to be converted and then work for the conversion of others. We shouldn’t wake up the day after Fat Tuesday suffering from a hangover. We should wake up immersed in the suffering and self-sacrifice of Lent. And everyone should know what day comes after Fat Tuesday.