How to Lent-Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us

Fountain, Audubon Park, New Orleans

The city of New Orleans has a singular reputation for laissez les bon temps rouler (“let the good times roll”) no matter what time of year. During Mardi Gras, though, the celebrations take on an over-the-top frenzy that is hard to match.

We lived in New Orleans in the 1970’s and saw this dress-up carnival cum Halloween celebration firsthand. Mardi Gras (literally ‘fat Tuesday’ in French) offers the citizens and umpty zillion of their best friends to dress up, dance and drink, throw candy and don beads. There are parades uptown, downtown, in the suburbs, everywhere.

I still have some beads from one of those parades. I also have snapshots of folks in the crowds during one particularly bawdy celebration. In New Orleans many of the folks live for Mardi Gras, its year round preparation and presence synonymous with their fair, old city. In theory, Mardi Gras is a day to indulge one’s senses, for the next day—Ash Wednesday (February 26th)—is to be marked by ashes and repentance.

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the forty days of prayer and fasting observed by many faith traditions, and derives its name from the placing of repentance ashes on the foreheads of participants. Priests or pastors recite either, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Lenten practices are intended to prepare our hearts to acknowledge the passion and death of Christ on the way to the celebration of Easter. But like the candy and costumes on Mardi Gras, the overwhelm of the world has overshadowed the meaning of Lent.