Mardis Gras

Let us pray:  Loving God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord our Rock, and our Redeemer.  Amen.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”  In the season of my life prior to my arrival at Princeton Theological Seminary, I was blessed to live for a year in New Orleans, Louisiana, where I served as a Young Adult Volunteer for the Presbyterian Church USA.  Now for those of you who aren’t lucky enough to know, New Orleans is a city that understands the significance of seasons.  We don’t only have Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall--we have Crayfish season, Oyster season, Mirliton (which is a kind of squash that we stuff with shrimp) season, sno-ball season, there is football season, festival season, and that most sacred time of year that culminates today, Mardi Gras season--which is a Christian season as steeped in holiness as Lent, extending from the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th to Mardi Gras day, the day before Ash Wednesday.

Like many people, before living in New Orleans I misunderstood Mardi Gras to be a holiday marked by lewdity and excess; I wrongly assumed that it was about nothing more than beads and beer.  And while that’s true in a few places in the city, Mardi Gras is at its core a season dedicated to happiness, enjoyment, eating and drinking and taking pleasure in toil--all those things that Kohelet highlights in today’s Scripture.   It is a holiday rooted in community fellowship, in celebration of art and beauty and creativity, it’s a time to laugh and dance and revel in what it means to be alive, and for the soul of a Church that seems to have lost its ability to understand pleasure, Mardi Gras is a gift.  

It will surprise few of you to know that during Mardi Gras there are parades.  These parades are hosted by groups known as “krewes”--these are the folks that build the floats and distribute the beads and other “throws”.  Though Mardi Gras has been celebrated in New Orleans since 1856, the first all-female krewe to parade uptown was only founded in 2001.  Known as The Mystic Krewe of Muses, they are infamous in New Orleans for their throws-- handcrafted shoes--covered in glitter and feathers and sequins, that are highly coveted prizes in Mardi Gras culture.  Since we speak in different terms here at PTS, getting a Muses’ shoe is the equivalent of being accepted into the most competitive PhD program in theology that exists.  It is very rare and very special.  

In my first Mardi Gras season, I of course, fully intended to go home with a shoe.  My friends Claire and Catherine were members of the Muses krewe, and they promised to fulfill this wish.  But as float after float went past the evening of the Muses parade, I began to think that they had missed my light up sign and outlandish outfit.  There were thousands of people at this parade after all, all of them vying for the attention of some krewe member.  I was not special.  I was just a sad girl from New Jersey who didn’t belong in this loud and crowded throng.  And then, I heard my name.  Catherine and Claire called me over to their float and showered me with not just one shoe, but with four.  FOUR!  I didn’t just get accepted into one highly competitive theology PhD program, I got accepted into ALL of them!! 

Standing in the street, surrounded by the crowd, my arms full of this new bounty, I was overcome with pleasure.  I was so overcome that I felt the need to express it physically, and so, in a way I have never done before or since, I tilted my head to the sky, and I screamed.  I screamed with such intensity that my body shook in response to the strain I put on my vocal chords.  If human beings could levitate, my scream would have lifted me into the air.  My scream was so foreign to my fellow revelers, that, in the midst of this incredibly raucous parade, they took a step back from me  ---  my pleasure scared the nice Tulane students around me.  

I tell this story because while I have felt this intensity of emotion about receiving a shoe dipped in glitter, I have never crowed in ecstasy about the fact that as a Christian I have received the kingdom of God.  I have physically manifested intense pleasure over fancy footwear, but have I ever embodied such pleasure at the reality of God with us--Immanuel ?? 

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday--the beginning of a different season in our liturgical lives, and there is pleasure to be found in quiet moments with Jesus; there is pleasure to be found in spiritual discipline--but friends, this is not the only kind of pleasure we've been rewarded with through Christ!  

Our God took on a body not only so he could suffer on the cross, but so that he could experience the satisfaction and delight of smoked fish and pita bread and olive oil and wine.  He took on a body so he could know the feeling of security and kinship that comes from a really good hug.  He took on a body so he could savor a belly aching laugh, the scent of a desert flower, the feel of water on his skin during a swim...or a baptism.  

Jesus knew not only what it meant to feel joy--He knew what it meant to feel pleasure--and on this Mardi Gras day I hope you remember that you were created to feel pleasure, too.  Pleasure in Christ and through Christ and with Christ, pleasure that is NOT a sin, but a gateway to God.  

And I hope you all have the courage as Church leaders and as Christians to model what it means to immerse yourself in the gifts of happiness, enjoyment, eating and drinking, and that you find pleasure in the toils of your precious life--regardless of the day, regardless of the season.  

And all God's children said.  Amen.

Eleanor Hewett