Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Meaning of Mardi Gras

By Barb Levy

I’m writing this on Mardi Gras, the day before the season of Lent begins. Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in French, and evidently comes from the tradition of slaughtering and feasting upon a fattened calf on the last day of Carnival. Carnival comes from the Latin words carne vale, meaning “farewell to the flesh.” People the world over take the opportunity to live it up, perhaps getting drunk or acting outrageous, before putting on their sackcloth and ashes and giving up something for Lent.

Of course, another word containing carne is incarnation, which literally means embodied in flesh.

During my five months as a catechumen, including my first Lent, I remember our beloved rector Fr. Peter Moore telling us that “Lent is not a self-improvement program.” What I took him to mean was that the meaning of Lent is not found in fasting from chocolate or alcohol, talking about our sacrifice for forty days, wearing our furrowed brows in public, but rather entering with Christ into the wilderness, embracing and learning from life’s temptations, and taking up our own crosses in daily life. This was preparation for Holy Week and Easter, not getting on the scale at the end of forty days.

I just re-read some of the St. Paul’s blog postings from last year, and found Fr. Torvend’s description of “the social context in which the practice of fasting emerged among Christians” very insightful. The post was entitled Why Fast, Who Cares?:

“When Lent emerged in the agrarian populations of western and eastern Europe, the practice of fasting was rooted in human necessity. The warming weather of spring would spoil foods kept in storage. Thus, it was important to eat the foods before they were no longer edible. At the same time, late winter and early spring are the birthing season for herds of animals. By refusing to eat beef, lamb, and pork, Christians helped the next generation of animals survive and so replenish the herd.

“But of course this form of fasting, rooted in the desire for human and animal survival, was shot through with biblical overtones. Christians saw themselves in solidarity with Noah and all the animals saved in the ark as they refused to eat animals during Lent, their fasting a gesture toward a new creation. And they were well aware of the Jewish and Christian practice of fasting—but fasting in order to set aside food for those who were chronically hungry. In other words, fasting allowed one to save food or money that could be given to the poor. … Yes, fasting focused on the hungry poor, not on simply ‘giving up something’ because ‘that’s what we do in Lent’ or refraining from delectable foods because it makes us pleasing to God or is simply a test of our endurance.”
So how might words and traditions rooted in flesh, atonement, sharing with those less fortunate, and taking care of creation inform our Lenten discipline?

Obviously giving up meat, or eating more meatless meals, is no longer a necessity in the sense of replenishing the herd. But animal agriculture in our day and age, though mostly hidden from view, has gone to the opposite extreme: 10 billion animals are killed each year in the United States—99% of them on factory farms where they undergo extreme suffering and degradation that would be illegal if it were done to our pets. And the degradation to our earth is closely tied with factory farming as well.

A Lenten discipline can include some degree of fasting from these horrors—eating more humanely by reflecting on how and what we consume and making more compassionate choices. This doesn’t need to be all or nothing. For instance, there is currently a movement called Meatless Mondays. Or, others eat vegan until dinner time. Learning more about the realities of the food industry and then choosing to eat what is better for us and for the environment (let alone animals) instead of eating something because it tastes good and is easy to come by is a challenging daily discipline.

Last year a woman who was preparing for baptism at St. Paul’s told me that in preparation for taking her baptismal vows, which include renouncing “the evil powers of the world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” she was becoming a vegetarian.

She knew that her interpretation was not typical, but felt that in knowing about the horrors of factory farming she could no longer partake in meat eating after taking those vows. She reached out to me because she knew I was a vegetarian. I was inspired by her perspective and her determination.

And it had just been dawning on me, after 30 years as a vegetarian and 17 as a Christian, how the two are connected.

This Lent, I offer these thoughts not to judge or sound self-righteous, but to urge us as a community to make this place a better world not just for one another, but for all God’s creatures.

“Animals are God's creatures, not human property, nor utilities, nor resources, nor commodities, but precious beings in God's sight. ... Christians whose eyes are fixed on the awfulness of crucifixion are in a special position to understand the awfulness of innocent suffering. The Cross of Christ is God's absolute identification with the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable, but most of all with unprotected, undefended, innocent suffering.”
Rev. Andrew Linzey, Anglican theologian
More links of interest:
Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare
Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians
Humane Society—Lent: Planning Your Menu

Barb Levy is not 100% anything, but tries to eat consciously. She welcomes your thoughts, and offers more of her own on her healthnik website.


Stephen Crippen said...

Barb, thanks so much for raising this issue, and doing it so gracefully. I haven't stopped thinking about this since you talked about it back in September, and have already made changes...this post encourages me to do even more. Particularly since I have pets! Thank you again. I'm tempted to call you an evangelist! (But I don't know if you would like that!) Certainly a prophet.

boodlebags said...

Thank you, Barb! Not only do you raise the question of eating mindfully, which is extremely important, but ACTING mindfully! I feel that too many Christians - or followers of other faiths, for that matter - observe many religious traditions "because it's just what we do". Or worse, because they're trying to impress themselves, others, or God with their piety. Were we all more mindful of what we do and why, the world would be a far better place; we'd be more focused on truly doing right instead of judging others or ourselves on the appearance of righteousness.

Barb Levy said...

I just read this in the NY Times:
"Observant Greeks abstain from all animal products except certain shellfish and mollusks. This means no meat, cheese, butter, yogurt or eggs, all foods the Greeks love but can do without, thanks to the delicious dishes that replace them."