As I gathered in my living room last night, I marked the foreheads of my wife and children with ashes in the symbol of a cross to the light of flickering candles. As my hand passed across their brow I whispered the words "from dust you have come and to dust you will return." It was intentionally somber and the ritual marks the start of a 40 day journey for us in which we will surrender and fast and do without in order to realign our hearts with our first love. We will pray and we will wait with eyes focused on Easter.
In stark contrast was the parades of Mardi Gras earlier in the week which served as a clear illustration of our penchant for celebration as prelude instead of response. In anticipation of a season of surrender and sacrifice Fat Tuesday is the opportunity to fill up on vice before the great fast of Lent leads us to virtue. In Lent we are reminded once again that the story of the Cross is Mardi Gras in reverse. Parades and parties, singing and spirits, beads and beer mark the glorious end, not the beginning of the journey. As we center our gaze in the coming weeks on the the life, death and resurrection of the Suffering Servant our hope is that we will realize once again that the call to discipleship is a call to willingly embrace burdensome paradoxes of death before life, sacrifice before reward, pain before relief and loss before victory. Remember that even the Son of man was lead by the Spirit into wilderness before he was lead down the hillside of Jerusalem to shouts of his triumphal entry.
Most importantly we learn trough the pages of Scripture the glorious truth that crucifixion is not an end, but the very road to resurrection. This is truly what we miss when Mardi Gras becomes the preferred celebration compared to Easter. It is the classic illness of the American church that wants good news without suffering; a gospel that promises your "best life now" instead of sacrifice. The journey of Lent holds out the guarantee that our surrender to God is never in vain, that a true and lasting salvation awaits those who are willing to embrace the mystery which tells us that when we lose our lives, we will actually find it, and when we die, will finally live. The dangerous lie of Mardi Gras is that the best is behind us and Lent is nothing more than our penance for Fat Tuesday.
The gospel tells us a dramatically opposite tale that the best is yet to come, that fasting comes before feasting, and the celebration being cleaned up today in the French Quarter is but a very small glimpse of the ceremony which awaits those who endure to the end. Mardi Gras can only offer escape from our hopelessness, while Lent continually points us towards the greatest hope the world has ever known. The true and certain promise of resurrection. This is the story told in the season of Lent.
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