A Mardi Gras Meditation
Originally Written Feb 24, 2017
I was born and raised in south Louisiana, which means I grew up surrounded by Roman Catholics. Louisiana was, in fact, so formed by the habits and traditions of French and Spanish Catholicism that to this day its civil law still operates under the old ways, grounded in early drafts of the Napoleonic code instead of English common law. Similarly, the state is divided geographically in a manner that reflects (in many places) the original ecclesiastical boundaries of the Spanish parish system. Even now, regional jurisdictions are called parishes instead of counties.
Louisiana is, in almost every way, an interesting mishmash of Catholic and American culture. The parishes are named along both sacred and secular themes. On the one hand, you have parishes named for Catholic doctrines and saints. On the other hand, you have parishes named for Confederates, Conquistadors, Native Americans, US Presidents, and European settlers, among other things. In some ways, Louisiana is short hand for the history of America itself.
Time is similarly divided in Louisiana, the sacred and the secular merging into a calendar of events that makes Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, and St. Joseph’s feast day just as important as the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Mothers Day. As a child, I particularly remember experiencing this odd fusion through the public school system’s weekly lunch menu. Every Monday was Red Beans and Rice—a Louisiana tradition—and every Friday was fish filets—a Catholic tradition.
As an Evangelical Presbyterian growing up in south Louisiana, my understanding of Christianity was just as often determined by what we didn’t do as it was by what we did. In short, we didn’t do any of the things the Catholics did. Almost in spite of ourselves, however, we became “liturgical animals”, to borrow Jamie Smith’s memorable phrase. The ghosts of Catholicism shaped the very manner in which we conceived of space and time.
This was never more apparent than during the liturgical season of Epiphany. Catholics around the world celebrate Epiphany as the Carnival Season. In Louisiana, we affectionately call it Mardi Gras. It is a season of parades and parties, with the latter commemorating Epiphany with a King Cake.
A King Cake is a round brioche cake that is iced and sprinkled with green, yellow, and purple dyed sugar. A small figurine of the Christ child is hidden somewhere in the cake. Then, everyone “searches” for the baby Jesus, much like the three kings did, by eating a slice of the cake.
The three colors mirror the three kings and represent power, justice, and faith. There is something powerful in the symbolism represented by the Mardi Gras season and the King Cake. During this time, we remember that the kings of this world—the power-brokers, the law-keepers, and the clergy—all submit to the kingship of Jesus Christ.
This fact, often forgotten in the hustle and bustle of the parade season, is particularly poignant this Mardi Gras. We are now in a time when the power-brokers pay lip-service to Jesus but they no longer search for him; a time when the law-keepers have interpreted the law in a manner that reflects Herod’s disregard for the innocents than it does Christ’s command to care for the least of these; a time when some who claim to speak in Jesus’ name are more interested in consolidating their political power than they are in hearing and speaking the Word of the Lord to those in power.
The kings have gone rogue. They are no longer following the star that leads to Christ. They have taken up residence with Herod. Faith has been exchanged for fear, justice for security, Christ for antichrist.
In such a time as this, the epiphany celebration must be recognized for what it is—an extended celebration of Christ’s kingship over and against the wayward kings of this world. Mardi Gras is, of course, known the world around for its excess and gluttony; but it is also known for its great hospitality. In a cultural climate dictated by fear that there is not enough—enough jobs, enough security, enough prosperity—the Mardi Gras season bears witness to something else. In south Louisiana, there is always enough to go around—enough festivity, enough music, enough cake, enough libations, enough.
Most of the pilgrims don’t know what they seek and most of the festivities have lost their liturgical meaning. Even so, the people somehow know that the parade season is a time to mock the corrupt politicians and the hypocritical clergymen. And insofar as they do, they know that something is not right about the world around them; that the truth lies somewhere closer to the joy and fellowship they share with each other when they put down their burdens and they become pilgrims in search of the one true king.