Our need for both Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday

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Fat Tuesday Ash Wednesday
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From the standpoint of an unsympathetic Protestant or non-Christian observer, Mardi Gras partying one day and Ash Wednesday penance the next are a sign of contradiction, if not even hypocrisy. How can we reconcile raucous revelry Tuesday night and humble repentance Wednesday morning?

From feasting to fasting

We must admit that in some cases, the judgment of tension, if not hypocrisy, hits the mark. Of course, the tradition of Fat Tuesday is partly rooted in the practice of consuming food and libation that will be forgone during Lent. But if it becomes an occasion of drunkenness or other sinful behavior, the critics are correct. It is not a legitimate answer for the Catholic to say we can sin Tuesday night because we will be forgiven Wednesday morning. “Shall we persist in sin that grace may abound?” asked St. Paul. To which he declared, “Of course not! How can we who died to sin yet live in it?” (Rom 6:1-2).

On the other hand, it is a mistake to equate joyfully consuming food and drink as necessarily sinful. Mardi Gras and other occasions for feasting are not an occasion of sin. Rather, they are an occasion to celebrate God’s abundant grace and the fulness of life to which we are called. The Church’s feasts and festivals (whether official or unofficial) are not an opportunity to sin, but rather to acknowledge God’s gracious gifts, and to thank him for them. And they are the occasions for we Christians to be bearers of joyful grace to one another. Jesus’ first miracle, after all, was performed at a wedding party. And it was for the purpose of keeping the party going. The same St. Paul admonished the Philippian Christians to “rejoice in the Lord always.” And just in case they missed the point, he repeated, “I shall say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil 4:4).

But this can, and should, be done in the spirit of temperance and prudence, not excess and recklessness. If we use such celebrations as an opportunity to sin, then we validate the criticisms of hypocrisy. But temperately practiced, celebrations of God’s goodness through feasts and festivals do not contradict seasons of penance and self-denial. Again, we can look to the example of Jesus. On the one hand, he is often seen eating and drinking with wealthy friends. On the other hand, he retreats to the desert for 40 days of fasting and prayer.

Living the ‘both/and’ of Catholicism

Feasting and fasting are both legitimate expressions of Christian behavior. They are examples of the “both/and” nature of Catholic faith. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving are expressions and vehicles of God’s grace, both to the practitioners and beneficiaries of these disciplines. But the joyful company of fellow Christians is also the occasion for the communication of grace. We both give thanks for God’s generous gifts and share them with one another. Indeed, how else do we exercise the virtue of hospitality than through feasting? Sharing from our abundance of goods is a sign of sharing our abundance of grace.

In a 1963 letter, Flannery O’Connor perfectly summarized this richly Catholic way of understanding the both/and nature of Christian life. “[W]hat you say about suffering being a shared experience with Christ is true,” she wrote to her friend Janet McKane; “but then it should also be true of every experience that is not sinful. … Joy,” she continued, “may be a redemptive experience itself and not just the fruit of one. Perhaps joy is the outgrowth of suffering in a special way.”

O’Connor perfectly summarizes the relationship of fasting to feasting; of Lenten deprivation to Easter celebration. We both fast in repentance and feast in redemption. We participate both in the agony of the cross and the exhilaration of the empty tomb. And both, as O’Connor explains, are redemptive experiences. God communicates his grace both through the amusements of Tuesday night and the ashes of Wednesday morning.

Kenneth Craycraft

Kenneth Craycraft, an OSV columnist, is a professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati and author of “Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America" (OSV Books).