Nothing more symbolizes the great, strongly Catholic city of New Orleans than does Mardi Gras. Nothing more symbolizes, for so many people, Catholic or otherwise, Catholic pious practice than do the ashes on Ash Wednesday. Nothing outpaces the drama of Lent in popular Catholic culture.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Ash Wednesday and Lent are connected, believe it or not, in a wonderful message for Lent — and for Easter. Most people assume that Mardi Gras is a garish, high-spirited last fling before a Lent few revelers will observe. It was not supposed to be this way. Mardi Gras should be remembered for its religious message.
Several years ago I was in New Orleans for a Catholic press meeting. After lunch I ventured from the hotel to find a drugstore, intending to be back for the next session. No drugstore was nearby. I walked some distance.
At last I found a drugstore. There I purchased what I needed, but when I started to leave the store, I discovered a deluge of rain. Unfamiliar with the local weather, I wondered if this was a short event, or was it going to be a sustained heavy rainstorm. The rainfall showed no sign of ebbing, and I was due back at the hotel.
Clad in my dress blacks, I looked for an umbrella. The only umbrellas on sale were those with the bright Mardi Gras colors: purple, green and gold. I wanted black, but I made do with what was available. With a flashy new umbrella above my head, I hurried through the pounding rain and reached the hotel in time.
I wanted black because I assumed some might think a Mardi Gras umbrella was unbecoming for a priest. After all, Mardi Gras can be a rather wild time. Back at the hotel, I learned what the colors of purple, green and gold meant. Purple stands for myrrh. Green is for frankincense. Gold, of course, is for gold.
Why are these colors absolutely required for Mardi Gras decorations? It is not about the name. Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” in French, a distinct reference to feasting. The day, however, has religious underpinnings since it is a celebration — but the last great celebration — of Christmas or, more precisely, the Epiphany.
The feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6 rejoices in that event, chronicled in St. Matthew’s Gospel and nowhere else in the New Testament, and once, before Ordinary Time, the liturgy marked the weeks following Jan. 6 as the time of the Epiphany.
The Epiphany, of course, recalls the arrival of “magi from the East” at the crib of the newborn Savior to pay him homage. Clear in the Gospel are these facts. God has enabled their arrival, helping them to bypass the scheming Herod and miraculously providing a suddenly visible star to guide them as they traveled from their homes faraway.
Astrologers and Scripture scholars still debate about this star, but its theological meaning is firm. It came and sparkled in the sky because of divine creativity and might. No earthly mind or force can form a star or move a star in its course through the sky.
God’s assistance assisted these magi, and without divine assistance they would not have reached their goal, but God did not push them on their way. They were resolved to find Jesus, the Son of God, to meet God in human flesh.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph received them and allowed them, obviously, to see, and to adore, the infant. Such hospitality says something. At the time, strangers often were viewed with suspicion if not with outright fear. Deeply immersed themselves in Jewish culture, Mary and Joseph would have looked cautiously upon outsiders, especially in any religious context.
In this marvelous visit, the magi brought gifts to the tiny Lord: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gifts are most expressive in themselves. Gold and frankincense, precious and rare, were gifts for kings. By presenting these gifts, the magi acknowledged that the infant was a king.
Over time, many long have concluded that the magi themselves were not only men of means but were royalty. How else could they have procured these gifts? The Gospel gives no explicit description of their wherewithal. Perhaps they were nobility, maybe rulers. Matthew’s term of magi has defied translators for centuries. Many details of the magi are unknown.
Ultimately, however, the story is not about the magi, although, of course, they form the key to unlock its meaning. The particular character of the gifts is not about them. Rather, Jesus is the center of the story, Jesus the king, Son of God and son of Mary.
So, the role of Jesus as king is central to Mardi Gras. For instance, in every festive Mardi Gras banquet in Louisiana, even the least religious, the featured dessert is the King Cake. By old, old custom, the cake cannot be a loaf. It must be baked as a round circle, 360 degrees, no breaks, no deviations in shape. It all signifies the eternity and perfection of God. Icing must cover the cake, in the bright colors of purple, green and gold, as if the frosting is a royal mantle. It is. Inside the cake is placed a small figurine or image of a baby, Jesus, the king.
The figurine, small as it is, is dropped into the batter during stirring. The batter, with the baby lost inside, then is poured into the cake pan for baking. No one knows where the figurine is. When the cake is served, the person whose piece, randomly sliced, contains the image of the Baby Jesus must host the Mardi Gras party next year. After all, he or she, although celebrating the coming of Christ the King, found the figurine without any prior knowledge of its whereabouts. This person then must host the other guests at the party to another dinner next Mardi Gras.
We must return the Lord’s love for us with our love for all others, in moments expected or unexpected.
When I left New Orleans, I took my purple, green and gold umbrella with me. It rests beside my front door, kept there to remind me, as I leave or return, that Christ is king, that Jesus came to me and to every human being, in every age, that the Lord gave everything, even life, for me, and that I must follow him, and that wherever I go, or by chance happen to be, I must give as Jesus gave.
Now where do Ash Wednesday and Lent enter the picture? The parties of Mardi Gras are past.
In St. Matthew’s Infancy Narratives, this wonderful story of the Epiphany opens his Gospel. The Matthean account is magnificent, never to say that Luke’s revelation of the conception, birth and early childhood of Jesus is not. As befits a revelation of the Incarnation, Matthew’s narrative has human components. Mary was human. So were the magi. So was Herod.
Strong in Matthew’s testimony is God, high and almighty, but loving and everlasting, forthcoming in mercy. Matthew brings forward the fact of God’s work divine among, and with, humans, and the Gospel’s insight is stunning.
Virtually at its close, Matthew’s Gospel highlights the terrifying crucifixion of the Lord. While Christ’s majesty gleams through the blackness of Good Friday, every verse is heavy with intrigue, hatred, exploitation, disregard for human dignity, agony and death itself.
Epiphany and crucifixion, adoration and scorn. The Gospel presents both scenes, and between them Christians must make their choices in life.
In a word, do they accept Christ as king?
If they decide to follow Christ the King, adored by the magi in Bethlehem so long ago, they will dance along no royal road surrounded by sweet-smelling roses. They with plod, with Jesus, along earthly streets to Calvary. As Paul so frankly said, they must die with the Lord.
The world, the flesh and the devil, wearing different disguises, will stand along the routes of faithful Christians, as the unmerciful stood beside the way of Jesus to Calvary, with their taunts and curses. Beside the true Christians also will be Mary, the devout women of Jerusalem, and Simon of Cyrene, in the strength of grace, the guidance of the Church and the compassion of the holy.
On Ash Wednesday, the ashes are lesson aids to teach us that the road ahead will not be easy. The goal is not earthly. After celebrating Mardi Gras with its religious dimension, Ash Wednesday bluntly asks us to decide what the coming of Jesus into our world means individually and deeply to each of us. Is Christ our king? Why did we celebrate?
I must ask myself this question. So, for me, to answer authentically and completely, I begin Lent. Pray that I may not stumble along the way. I shall pray, fraternally, for you. God bless us all until we rejoice in the brilliant high noon of Easter.
The cover for this edition of The Priest shows a priest imposing blessed ashes on the forehead of a young girl. It is a sight that cheers the hearts of priests, of faithful parents and indeed of all devoted Catholics. The Church will live in the next generation!
Disturbing data indicates that baptisms of infants are waning, and that attendance in Catholic schools and religious education classes is falling. It is real. It is not good, and tragic for the young souls who miss an opportunity to meet the Lord.
Cultural pressures these days are mighty. Forming children in religion is primarily the mission of parents, but pastors play a vital, usually essential, role. They must inspire children and adults alike.
In Lent, by our reflection and concentration, may God grant us priests the grace to live, to be, and to speak so that in us all see Christ and are fascinated by the vision. If priests possess in their own hearts the fire of faith, solutions will come.
This column is written with an overlay of sadness. Just before its composition, the staff of Our Sunday Visitor learned of the death of Ambassador Thomas Patrick Melady. His was a life of distinguished service to this country, by unusual scholarship and by fidelity to the Church. His term as United States envoy to the Holy See still is counted as the gold standard for anyone in the position.
We of this staff remember him as an esteemed colleague and adviser. Our Sunday Visitor is honored to have published The Ambassador’s Story, a recollection of his time representing this country at the Holy See. We very much indeed shall miss his crisp insights into religious and international trends.
Most certainly, we extend our sympathy and pledge of prayers to his wife, Dr. Margaret Melady, distinguished in her own right, and to their family.
May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.