Editor’s Note: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or apathetic when faced with the sheer volume of need in our world. Writing a check or volunteering with a local organization are important steps to walking in justice, but they’re not the only steps. “Alternate Routes” is an essay series that explores imaginative ways of cultivating empathy and restoring the cracked pieces of the world—in other words, alternate routes to living justly.
“For the tap dancing, boogie woogie,
who also hear God,
joy unspeakable is
that space/time/joy continuum thing
that dares us to play and pray
in the interstices of life,
it is the belief that the phrase
‘the art of living’
means exactly what it says.
Joy unspeakable is
both fire and cloud,
the unlikely merger of
trance and high tech lives
ecstatic songs and a jazz repertoire
Joy unspeakable is
a symphony of incongruities
of faces aglow and hearts
and the wonder of surviving together.”
“Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.”
– Chris Rose
Young and old alike don feathered costumes and elaborate masks, some towering on stilts. Teenagers drum the backs of buckets while police officers dance in the middle of the street. The cacophony of air horns and saxophones and laughter carries for miles. Strangers sway arm-in-arm with each other as confetti falls from the sky like green and purple rain. This is Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
There is an undergirding spirit to Mardi Gras and the Carnival season that defies the media-fueled trope of drunkenness and debauchery. The spirit is an electric, elusive thing that cannot be contained by words alone; it must be felt, experienced, and inhabited. It is the suspension of the ordinary and commonplace that enables us to transcend into holy communion and oneness with each other.
Nations Journal Volume 4 featured reformer Sister Alison McCrary contextualizes this sentiment: “In a city like New Orleans, where I live, where there is a lot of poverty and violent crime, the Carnival season is a time to bring people together in community…to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers and the many children of the neighborhood, to celebrate and enjoy life together.”
It for this reason, this transcendent communal aspect, that my first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans is forever imprinted on my heart and mind. I remember taking a pause from the swirling chaos of the floats and the noise and the crowds to gaze at this beautiful convergence of ages, races, and creeds—united for no other reason than pure jubilee and kinship.
In a time when strife and division dominate our public sphere and discourse, I marveled at the sight of such unity; it felt like a glimpse of the kingdom, the “already but not yet.”
Beginning on Epiphany (“Three Kings Day”) and ending with Mardi Gras (“Shrove Tuesday,” the day before Ash Wednesday) is the season of Carnival: a Western Christian and Greek Orthodox festive season that precedes the liturgical season of Lent.
“For me, it’s part of my liturgical calendar even though Mardi Gras may not be on the Catholic liturgical calendar itself,” says McCrary. “But it is a time of preparation in many ways, of celebrating the cycle of life, death, and rebirth that we see in the Christian traditions and other traditions throughout history.”
The roots of Carnival are thought to reach back to a primitive festival honoring the beginning of the new year and the rebirth of nature, but it has since been adopted in many Roman Catholic countries as a pre-Lenten celebration before a period of repentance and fasting. While celebrations vary around the world, they are most commonly marked by parades, costumes, song, and dance. In Brazil, Carnival is the country’s most famous holiday, when everything shuts down for an entire week in celebration of life and camaraderie.
For many Catholics like McCrary, Mardi Gras and Carnival offer space for the kind of joy and celebration that is mandated in Scripture. “I don’t think joy is optional in our Christian life,” says McCrary. “I think about how much in Scripture it talks about [joy]: ‘rejoice in the Lord always,’ ‘serve the Lord with gladness in your heart,’ ‘leap for joy.’ Throughout Scripture there are invitations to rejoicing and celebrating that I think are essential to the Christian life. That’s not to downplay the suffering and the many imperfections in our society and in our life, but to find beauty in the midst of that.”
We need not dive deep into Scripture in order to find countless stories and examples of celebration. Leviticus 25 describes years of Jubilee in which slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and God would restore creation into right relationship. The New Testament account of Jesus’ birth tells of an angel who brings “good news of great joy” and a heavenly host singing praises to God. The gospel of John describes a great wedding celebration in Cana that runs out of wine; Jesus turns water into wine (his first public miracle), his glory is revealed, and the party goes on. Later in the gospel of Luke, we read of the Lord’s supper, a meal representing the communion of believers and giving of thanks.
If we are to believe that joy and jubilee is truly biblical, I encourage you, in the festive spirit of Mardi Gras and Carnival, to infuse celebration into your spiritual practice as you draw close to God and others this Lenten season. Here are a few places to start:
1. Host a meal for your friends and/or neighbors. Make it a point to invite neighbors with whom you don’t often interact. Crawfish boils are one of my favorite Louisiana traditions that bring the neighborhood around the table in messy, holy communion.
2. Make a list of things that bring you joy and ask where you might be able to share in those things with others. In the words of the late Chris McCandless, “Happiness is only real when shared.” While I love solo excursions (hiking, movies, travel), I often challenge myself to bring a friend along on the journey in the hopes that we might commune in shared joy.
3. Celebrate others! Make a call, send a gift, or write a letter to a person who could feel celebrated and cherished for the simple beauty of who God made them to be.
It is my prayer that through these practices, and others like them, that you may know the joy of community and receive a taste that is the kingdom come. So go forth, and laissez les bons temps rouler.
Photo by Michael Tucker.