I think most people who self-identify as “practicing” Catholics take the same approach to Mardi Gras that a Grizzly Bear takes to hibernation. They load up on food as a way of ameliorating the coming cessation of eating. It’s a very pragmatic approach, one I can’t in any way shape or form criticize. It certainly avoids the demeaning and outrageous conduct associated with most cultural practices of Mardi Gras or Carnivale.
But as I see it, there is a certain theological and spiritual blandness to such an approach. Its end seems to be the proper adherence of the Ash Wednesday fast rather than immersion into the beginning of the Lenten Pilgrimage. As loathe as I am to admit this publicly, there might be more substance in a hedonistic approach to the day, albeit one not so opposed to the more obvious bounds of moral living.
When the pragmatist wakes on the morning of Ash Wednesday, she awakes full bellied, ready to go, having achieved yesterday what she needed for today. For a variety of reasons (I will let you determine them for yourself), the hedonist wakes up empty. Having filled himself the night before with food, spirits and revelry, he must nevertheless face the fact that the previous night’s excitement is over. Although he may enjoy the recounting of its stories and mishaps, in order to achieve such excitement again he must work for it: earning the necessary money and spending it on the necessary provisions. It is not necessarily the worst life in the world, but it betrays a constant human yearning, a constant need to be filled, thrilled, and satisfied.
The Christian would be wise to have this experience once in a while—to experience the great joys of life in the world, so that its limitations might be revealed, and Christ, “who is all,” might be revealed and encountered as the source and satisfaction of all human longing. This is what we search for in Lent—not increased moral rectitude (although that is a happy consequence), but a heart in which room is made for Christ: to dwell, to forgive, and to renew.
As we continue our celebrations this day, let us not focus entirely on the living out of tomorrow’s fast, but let focus on a true celebration of the goods and joys that God has given us in this life. Having celebrated them let us arise tomorrow (clear-headed or groggy) and give thanks that though they filled us and brought us joy, that is Jesus Christ who is our true nourishment and everlasting desire.