Today is Fat Tuesday–Mardi Gras, in French–the close of the carnival season of celebration and revelry which leads up to Ash Wednesday (tomorrow) and the penitential season of Lent. The Mardi Gras season has its roots in medieval Catholic Europe, and it has evolved in a variety of ways in various cultures (Carnevale in Italy; Fastnacht in Germany; Carnival in Brazil), but common to all is the spirit of over-the-top excess and indulgence, all of course, as a way to prepare for a period of spiritual renewal.
Another feature of these celebrations is highlighting “topsy-turvy” role reversals. The king becomes the pauper and the pauper becomes the king. Women dress as men, and men dress as women. Opposites switch places. The powerless become the powerful. It’s a time of thinking differently than the usual, dominant order dictates.
So, it is not surprising that the LGBT people become so heavily involved in Mardi Gras celebrations. Part of the spirit of the season is that oppressed groups become liberated and elevated to high esteem–a long-time hope for many in the LGBT community for many years.
On the Pop Theology blog hosted by Patheos.com, Richard Lindsay reflected on how the outrageous excess of Mardi Gras celebrations seem to serve a communal or spiritual purpose for LGBT people. He begins with a detailed description of a fabulous event, a gay Mardi Gras ball:
“I still don’t believe what I witnessed this past weekend. Blinking my eyes in the daylight, I can conjure memories of feathers, explosions of confetti and lights sweeping a bouncing crowd of revelers. There was royalty—kings and queens decked out from tiara to toes in glitter. There was pounding, dance-inducing music. And drag—what drag! Maybe more queens in red carpet gowns and gravity-defying wigs than I have ever seen in one room, even having lived in the gay Meccas of San Francisco and New York City.”
His essay goes on to describe even more outrageous details of costumes and sets, but his real purpose is to note that there is a deeper meaning and purpose to all this revelry, even to the point of providing a sort of secular spirituality for those excluded from churches:
“What’s difficult to remember in the midst of all the wildness is that Mardi Gras started as a religious festival—the lead-up to Lent, the most solemn 40 days of the Christian year. So many members of the Krewe are spiritual refugees, rejected by their churches for being gay or queer. The queen of last year’s ball, who has graciously ruled Apollo for the last year, is the son of a Pentecostal pastor. When you hear him speak about the friendship and love he receives from the Krewe, you realize his church missed out on a powerful preacher.
“Yet somehow the Krewe has captured the holy moment through a queer lens. To be in the midst of the ball is to stand on holy ground. To be near the royalty as their attendants push them through the crowd is to brush up against rhinestoned divinity. To reach your hands out to catch the beads they throw is to become a supplicant, grasping for a relic from a sparkling saint.”
Though I have never been to a real Mardi Gras celebration, I love the spirit of the season. And while I’m happy that this joyous revelry helps people feel a sense of their worth and of their belonging to a larger community, I have to admit that I am a bit sad that not all people can yet find those values in communities of faith.
Can Catholic churches celebrate Mardi Gras? To do so would require that we step out of our hallowed orthodoxies for a while, that we would be able to make fun of ourselves, that we allow ourselves to imagine life in a different, perhaps more fabulous, way. We would have to give up our seriousness–and by this, I mean even our progressive seriousness–and revel in the comic side of life. We would need to celebrate not what makes us different, but what makes us all comically and equally the same.
I think the LGBT people in our faith communities can help us to celebrate Mardi Gras in a rich and spiritual way, if we would only welcome them into our communities. Celebrating Mardi Gras is not just an excuse for riotousness, but it can help us appreciate better the sense of conversion to which Lent calls us.
Lindsay concludes his essay with an important lesson about Mardi Gras and LGBT people:
“But what irony, that the queer community that was once despised and rejected, that thirty-nine years ago practiced their rites in secret for fear of harassment, now hosts the social event of the year. As it is written in 1 Peter 2:7: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’ And even more important than the one-upmanship of having the most incredible Mardi Gras celebration outside of New Orleans or Rio or Sydney, is the community and fellowship which has emerged: ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’ (1 Peter 2:10, NRSV).”
Mardi Gras can help us see the world in a topsy-turvy sort of way, as Jesus did: where enemies become friends, where the first become the last, where sorrow becomes joy, and where dying becomes rising to new life.
Laissez les bon temps rouler!
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry