"[God makes] wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man's heart." - Psalm 104:15
"Come on, take me to the Mardi Gras, where the people sing and play. Where the dancing is elite, and there's music in the street both night and day." These words from Paul Simon express a different view of "the Mardi Gras" than how most of America sees it. The video included in this post is of the Rebirth Brass Band from New Orleans performing a "Second Line" in the French Quarter. This is a common event during Mardi Gras. Having grown up in the suburban south, I was quite surprised when I moved to New Orleans to find that the city was filled with Catholic churches. Later, I was surprised by the spirit of excitement that surrounded Mardi Gras. Of course, as most Americans think, I imagined Mardi Gras as one massive debauch. So, it leads me to ask the question, having seen a city so Catholic and yet with such a penchant for party. . . Does God like the Mardi Gras?
Having lived there pre- and post-Katrina, I still remember the remarks of many that Hurricane Katrina was divine retribution for the sins of New Orleans––re: crime, debauchery, racism, etc. Telling someone that you live or have lived in New Orleans eventually leads to a conversation about Mardi Gras, and those who have never visited the city during this season tend to presume that what they see on TV is the very heart and soul of the entire event––essentially, exhibitionism and the abuse of alcohol. But, truth be told, the season of Mardi Gras starts early in the year, just as the rest of the world is throwing away the last of its Christmas trees and putting up Valentine's Day decorations. The majority of Mardi Gras is a family event, I would contend. It's true, the French Quarter is no place for a child (or perhaps even most adults) during the height of the season, and especially at night. But for many of those who call New Orleans home, the spirit of Mardi Gras is festivity rather than debauchery. So what about excess? What does God think about excess, because isn't this what Mardi Gras is about? Getting fat. . . getting it "out of your system" before you have to sober up and do penance during Lent? Consider these words from the prophet Isaiah:
"Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening till wine inflames them! They have lyre and harp, timbrel and flute and wine at their feasts; but they do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands. . . . Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink" -Isaiah 5:11-12, 22
"Heroes at drinking wine. . ." now that sounds like "college." Sometimes I wonder if college is about building relationships and skills or if it is about developing that most coveted of "skills": alcohol tolerance. In many ways, the week before Mardi Gras can be a tour de force in alcoholic prowess. And for what? To share stories the next day on Facebook (What am I saying? You have to update Facebook as soon as you get home, right?) about precisely how awesome one is at drinking. It sounds like God would not like all this revelry.
Now, because I don't think the Jews knew of Bacardi or Handgrenades, we'll just consider wine and its appearance in Scripture. It goes without saying that there are a number of scriptural events involving alcohol which do not end well––just ask Noah. But what about the use of wine in celebrations and even that most holy of nights, different than every other night: the Passover. Or consider a quote like this (also from Isaiah):
"On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined." -Isaiah 25:6
We could make this into a simple metaphor, and presume that the pleasures of feasting and drinking is only a vivid image for the glories of Heaven. But even then, we have to reconcile the common assumption that excess is wicked with a prophet who gets away with naming God's promises in terms that sound like glut and luxury to pious human ears. Yet, the inclination of even Christians at the thought of God's generosity has been to rejoice and to do so by enjoying creation. Of course, it will be said, but all in moderation. Sure, sure, moderation. Yet, God is not moderate in his generosity. He is prodigal. He makes "our cup runneth over," "pours out his Spirit on all people," and inebriates his disciples so that others see them and accuse them of being drunk! (Acts 2:13). All this leads me to reveal my bias, if I haven't already: God likes Mardi Gras. God likes it when his children rejoice in the glory of his creation, when they delight themselves in one another's company and share their talents (musical, for instance) with one another. God himself delights when his children find joy in material pleasures.
Well, sort of. We have to make some important clarifications. Certainly, if the moral inclinations of human beings are any sign of God's own preferences (which I suspect they are), then God does not like the abuse of alcohol, the exploitation of women, the materialism and wastefulness of much that surrounds our 'partying', the obscenities and the destruction of innocence in the name of "fun", or the ostentation of our celebration in light of the suffering of so many around us. God must surely hate these things. It is certainly one thing to enjoy a good meal, even eat a little too much. It is another to fill and fill simply to be filled. Again, as Isaiah warned,
"They have lyre and harp, timbrel and flute and wine at their feasts; but they do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands."
Human revelry and enjoyment can easily become like a sorry banquet dinner for a charitable organization. That is, a dinner where the poor are never invited. Where the rich glut themselves and congratulate one another for a job well done in service to those in need, while––most likely––the poor serve them at their tables and keep their open bar stocked with good wine and drink. The link between Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday can never be severed. We celebrate Ash Wednesday liturgically, but we do not celebrate Mardi Gras liturgically. Why? Perhaps because Mardi Gras is but one more moment in the eternal celebration of Christ's sacrifice. One who truly drinks of the cup of Christ's blood in the Mass could never look at a glass of wine in the same way. She could never again sip of a glass of wine without thinking of sacrifice. She could never "party" without remembering what came after Jesus' final party––the Cross. She could never revel in strong drink and a hearty meal without remembering why the blood she drank was spilled: for the many, for the poor, for the downtrodden, for those enslaved by sin and suffering.
"Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine
there’s dancing and laughter and good red wine
at least I have always found it so