Monday, February 16, 2015

Goodbye Meat

Ash Wednesday

In many historically Catholic countries, the period that immediately precedes the Lenten season is marked by celebrations that are collectively known as Carnival. The Carnival typically involves a public celebration or parade combining elements of a circus, mask and public street parties. People often dress up or masquerade during this entire week of celebrations, overturning the often mundane norms of daily life. It often seems ironic and even scandalous that the austere, penitential and holy season of Lent is preceded by this orgiastic display of frivolous and drunken debauchery. It’s as if all the rich food and drink, pleasures and luxuries, and excesses of every kind, had to be consumed and disposed of in preparation for the Lenten fast and abstinence. The word "carnival" literally means "farewell to meat." Today, we say, “Goodbye meat!”

But there is a necessary juxtaposition of Carnival and Lent. There can be no Carnival without Ash Wednesday and the significance of Ash Wednesday and Lent will be lost upon us, if life did not have its Carnival. All things have their season – there is a season for feasting, and a season for fasting. Carnival is indeed a time of physical and spiritual preparation for the Lenten time of self-denial. We had just concluded a Carnival of sorts – our Parish Feast Day and Novena. I jokingly commented to many that the celebrations of the past week had a been a kind of religious and spiritual Disneyland. But that time of feasting has ended. Now we must begin our fasting. This is the time when the Church invites us to reexamine and reorder all aspects of our life. We can see the contrast of Carnival indulgence and Lenten fasting not just in foods, but all areas of life. Carnival puts into perspective the things we need to give up in Lent.

Our pre-Lenten celebrations and preparations provide us with a graphic illustration of the message of Lent, that we are fools, if we who seek our final end in earthly things! The Church, during this season of Lent, will show you where true happiness may be found, Who it is that brought it, and how He merited it for us. The pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations, despite their rollicking good fun and general merriment, really had a deadly serious objective. The “princes of this world,” in all their tinsely splendour, followed by a long train of personified human vices, sins and infirmities, solemnly enters the city gate and takes possession of the town.  

The performers are all arrayed in their costumes with the purpose of portraying Death, the World, Vanity, Beauty, Sin of every kind, human wealth, suffering, the joys and sorrows of human life, etc. This is not a triumphant procession of a victorious army. But a ridiculous motley crew of defeated individuals that are being subjected to mockery and humiliation. It is the procession of the defeated forces of the world, of sin, of vice and the Devil. It’s a parody of the triumphant procession of our true King, Christ, as he enters his City.

Thus did the merriment of the passing hour imperfectly conceal a stern seriousness. This was the means the Church took to warn her children not to be spiritual fools. Piercing through the noise and fun-making, and clearly heard by all, was the. warning voice: “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice.” A further warning that all we aspire to accomplish, all that we hope to acquire and possess is merely “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Only one thing is necessary: Save your soul; give heed to what the Church will command you during the coming season of Lent. The words that accompany the imposition of holy ashes ring true, “Paenitemini, et credite Evangelio.” “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”  

Certainly, if the world were given a choice between Carnival and Lent, Carnival is the more popular choice of the two. And yet, Carnival must find its ultimate meaning in Lent. It is the austerity of Lent, the penance of Lent, the prophetic self-renunciation of Lent that truly prepares us for the Carnival celebration of life. St. Augustine can serve us as a safe guide during this period of preparation for Lent, and of course, during the season itself, too. “The pagans,” he says, “present each other with gifts of friendship, but you should give alms during these days of wickedness. They shout their songs of love and pleasure; you must learn to find joy in the hearing of the word of God. They run eagerly to the theatre; you must flock to the churches. They guzzle their drinks; you must be temperate and fast.”

Thus, the prayers and gospels of the season of Lent attempt to awaken us to a profound realisation of the fact that only through penance and through uncompromising rejection of sin, that is, through a thorough change of heart, can we partake of the redemption of Christ. Through His incarnation, His passion and death, Christ gained for us the graces of salvation without any merit on our part. But only a heart freed from sin and evil inclinations can become the field producing fruit fifty and a hundred-fold for the divine Sower. Whoever refuses to toil at purifying his sin-laden heart will of necessity remain in fatal darkness, and the light of salvation and grace will not reach him. After the feasting that ended yesterday, let us now begin our fasting. And after the long winter of fasting from the pleasures and delights of the world, we will be guaranteed a rich harvest of spiritual fruits that comes with a springtime of the Soul.

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