This week, several years ago, when I was in graduate school, one of my friends showed up with a cross of ashes on her forehead. It was strange to me, so I asked her what it was about. She was Catholic. She had been to the priest, and he had burnt the leaves of the palms from Palm Sunday from the last year, and he took the ashes of the leaves and put them on her head in the sign of a cross. It is supposed to be a solemn time for Catholics because it is the beginning of the Great Lent, the time of fasting before Easter.
As for the beads, I had heard of them before, and when I was teaching at Ohio University, some of my students told me they had been to Mardi Gras. They said women were flashing their breasts so people would throw beads at them, and that everyone was drunk. All I could think was, “How sad.” Mardi Gras is a parade in New Orleans, Louisiana, U. S. A., and the name means “fat Tuesday,” The Catholics are supposed to have one last party of eating anything they want and committing whatever sin they want before the Great Lent. To me, that is not Christianity. Once you become a Christian, you repent which means to turn away from sin, and Mardi Gras goes completely against Christianity.
Next week, the Orthodox start their big fast before Easter too. We all wonder where all this came from. Why do they fast? Why do they put ashes on their heads? What would God think about Mardi Gras? If those women want beads so bad, why don’t they just go out and buy some beads instead of letting themselves be compromised?
When I asked my Orthodox friends who fast about why they fast, they said, “Christ fasted for 40 days, so we should too.” I looked it up, and that is what the priests tell them. However, there is never a command to fast in the Bible. If you look in Matthew 4 where Christ went into the desert and fasted for 40 days right after he was baptized and was tempted by Satan, that is what they are talking about. From what I understand, they don’t actually fast for 40 days before Easter, but the Lent fast lasts a bit longer because they are allowed to eat on Sundays. Also, when they fast, they don’t just stop eating. There is a list of things they don’t eat like sweets and meat, but I am not really sure what all is on the list.
When I lived in Romania, lots of people fasted. If you didn’t fast, they looked at you if you were not as good of a Christian as they were. I have learned that until Protestantism came about, all Christians fasted, both Catholics and Orthodox because they were the original churches. They did it because in the Old Testament, when someone was unhappy or petitioning to God, they fasted, and they were following their example. For example, you can read about King David fasting, wearing sack cloth and ashes, and crying when his child was dying because he was petitioning to God to save the child, and he knew the child was dying because of his own sins. Some of the priests also point to the verses in Genesis when Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden, and it says, “..for dust you are, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).
Okay, but these scripture references are from the Old Testament, and if they are going to put dust on their foreheads, then why don’t they also wear sack cloth (an itchy material), instead of bearing their breasts for beads? None of this makes any sense to me. if they want to be Christians.
What did Christ say about fasting? He never condemned fasting, but he also never commanded it. In fact, there is no where in the Old or New Testaments that anyone is commanded to fast. Here is what Jesus said: ” When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your father who is unseen’ and your father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18). I promise, if I ever fast, no one will know. I went on a diet last year, and my daughter said I should document it on my blog, but to me, something like that is private. I don’t like running around telling someone I am dieting, and if I fast, you won’t know either.
If you think it is an Old Testament teaching, so we should follow it, first it isn’t. There is no where in the Old Testament that we are told to fast. Second of all, the purpose of the Old Testament is to lead us to Christ and to teach us about God and his nature. The law for Christians is the New Testament. The Old Testament is a teacher for the Christians. Romans 3:19-21 says that we are not justified by keeping the old law, but by Jesus, by dong what Jesus said in the the New Testament. Romans 2 says that if we try to keep part of the Old Testament law, but still break it at one point, then we are not following God. With Christ, grace has been given. Romans 3:8 is plain when it says that we are justified by faith in Jesus and not by keeping the Old Testament law. Colossians 2:14 reads, “..having cancelled the written code, with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us, he took it away nailing it to the cross.” The Old Testament law has been nailed to the cross of Christ, and if we want to take part in that, Romans 6 asks us after the long discourse I cited above about the Old Testament and New Testament in the early part of Romans, that because we have grace, does that mean we should take advantage of it and keep sinning? The Apostle Paul is adamant, and says, “No!” He then tells us that when we repent (turn away from sin) and are baptized, then we rise to a new life. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is what it is all about, not about keeping the Old Testament law. We die to sin, we are buried with Christ in baptism, and we rise to walk a new life. We are expected to change at that point, and going to Mardi Gras getting drunk and taking our clothes off goes completely against the idea of repentance. Putting ashes on our heads and fasting because they did it in the Old Testament says you are trying to go back to Judaism, and you better start making your animals sacrifices at the temple because Romans says you have to keep the whole law if you keep just part of it.
Is it wrong to have a party or a celebrate a holiday? No! Go back to Colossians chapter 2. First, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human traditions and basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Don’t let people tell you you must or must not do things, only listen to God. Secondly, “Therefore, do no let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Colossian 2:16). People don’t need to be bothering one another about holidays. Mardi Gras would be fine if it wasn’t a drunken orgy. “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why as though you still belong to it, do you submit to its rules? Do not handle. Do not taste. Do not touch. These are all destined to perish with use because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self imposed worship, their false humility, and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Colosians 2:20-23). In the verses before that, they even say making strict rules that Christ didn’t make is also like a kind of self worship. We don’t need to strive to be “holier than thou.” Celebrating holidays is fine.
However, when we celebrate holidays, we need to still remember that we are Christians. Acts 2:38 is clear. When we repent and are baptized, our sins are forgiven, so we can go to Heaven, and we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. What on earth is that “gift of the Holy Spirit”? Look in Galatians 5:16-26. First, it lists things that we don’t do if we have the the Holy Spirit. Verses 10, 20, and 21 truly condemn what is happening in New Orleans on Mardi Gras: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like, I warn you as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Christians can’t take part in what is happening in New Orleans. Taking part in Mardi Gras is sin, and you won’t go to Heaven.
Christians should have the Holy Spirit. If we have the Holy Spirit, people will see these things from Galatians 5:22-26: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the spirit. Let us not become conceited provoking and envying each other.” The people who are fasting and looking at the others thinking about what good Christians they are need to be looking at these verses too. If you decide to fast, you not only should not broadcast it, and you should not be looking at others thinking you are better than they are. Fasting is a quiet, secret, individual decision. It is not a command. It is not a measure of who is the best Christian. it is something between the person who fasts and God. And if you are going to add the ashes, then where is the sack cloth?
People think there is a big party down in New Orleans on Mardi Gras, and lots of people have asked me if I have ever been. I don’t want to go. It is not my kind of party. I love parties, but not parties full of drunks and guys throwing beads out to get women to flash them. When I read about it, I saw that over on Bourbon street where this takes place is where the prostitutes hang out, and there are guys who try dropping their pants to get someone to throw them beads too. If the police catch the guys, they are arrested. They say lots of perverts head to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and stalk the women, and some of the women are raped. They talk about the symbolism of the beads, and I can’t remember all the different things they symbolize, but one of them is “faith.” What does faith have to do with debauchery and immorality? If you want to fast, fine, but never go to that party in New Orleans and make the fast between you and God, not between you and everyone around you. Christians theoretically want to go to Heaven. Do you?