I don’t think it is a secret that if you looked up “party animal” in the dictionary, you will NOT find my name or picture there. However, this lackluster kind of guy has a very odd allure to the festival of Mardi Gras. All of the bright colors, festivities, food, dancing and excitement all seem very fascinating to me. I have never attended Mardi Gras and probably will never do so. I had to ask myself why I find this ancient festival so attractive.

I wasn’t even sure what all this hoopla is about, so I did what most of us do these days and turned to Google. This is some of what I discovered…

What Is Mardi Gras? Mardi Gras is a tradition that dates back thousands of years to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, including the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia.

When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate these popular local traditions into the new faith, an easier task than abolishing them altogether. As a result, the excess and debauchery of the Mardi Gras season became a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of fasting and penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.

Along with Christianity, Mardi Gras spread from Rome to other European countries, including France, Germany, Spain and England.

What Does Mardi Gras mean? Mardi is the French word for Tuesday, and Gras means “fat.” In France, the day before Ash Wednesday came to be known as Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday.”

Traditionally, in the days leading up to Lent, merrymakers would binge on all the rich, fatty foods—meat, eggs, milk, lard, cheese—that remained in their homes, in anticipation of several weeks of eating only fish and different types of fasting.

Hmmm, nothing there that I did not know. What about the masks, I wondered. Why do most people wear masks during this celebration? Again I turned to my faithful friend Google.

During Carnival in Venice, people began to wear masks and elaborate costumes to disguise their identities. The masks worn during the festival allowed individuals from different social classes to interact with one another in a way that was usually prohibited by social norms.

Revelers also protected themselves and their reputations by wearing masks. They could party while remaining anonymous, hiding their status, gender, age, and even their religion. During Carnival, people felt the freedom to be who they wanted to be for the moment. Masks enabled them to play out fantasies or indulge in forbidden pleasures.

Today, everyone wears masks during Mardi Gras. In fact, float riders are required to wear masks by law. On Fat
Tuesday, everyone is free to wear masks, adding to the excitement and magic of celebrations throughout the city.

Isn’t it ironic, it is not just at Mardi Gras that we find ourselves wearing masks. Most of us wear them at all times in public. Of course, I don’t mean we wear the masks literally, but we wear them figuratively. Seldom do we take off our masks allowing the world to see us as we truly are.

Not all our masks are as obvious as the decorated porcelain masks of Carnival, but we can still hide behind them. The longer a mask is worn, the more comfortable it feels, and the harder it is to take off. In a world where beauty, success, and perfection are valued, it’s hard to remove the mask and reveal the real person behind the facade. We may be able to mask our pain, desperation, discouragement, shame, and sin from other people, but we can never hide them from God.

The day after Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), we step into the six-week season of Lent as we observe Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday implores us to remove our masks. We remove them not so much for God, but we remove them so we see ourselves honestly and openly.

Repentance involves letting down our pretenses and laying our masks aside. It means revealing and confessing our sin and then turning away from it.

I wonder how many people with ash fresh on their foreheads will still be wearing masks. Will the ashes be painted onto masks or onto truly repentant hearts? Will they be a license to sin for a season, or a reminder of mortality and the need for repentance?

Repentance is choosing to remove the mask and not put it on again, believing that Jesus died to save the person behind the mask. Because of Jesus’s death and resurrection, we can come before God without pretense, fear, or shame—without our masks.

Pastor Russel

Photo by Kevin O’Mara