A Reflection on Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday

This was a brief, 3-minute reflection I shared in today’s online chapel service, “TruthS: Stories and Songs,” for Starr King School for the Ministry:

Mardi Gras is two weeks from today.

Each year I was a student at Duke Divinity School, I hosted a Mardi Gras party. I would cook traditional Louisiana cuisine, such as etouffee and red beans and rice. I had an authentic Louisiana King Cake shipped 900+ miles to Durham, North Carolina.  At the very first party, I tried to explain the traditions about the King Cake and the Christ child figurine hidden within. But my friends and classmates, emboldened by just the right amount of inebriation, sought to recast the tradition on their own terms. My roommate, Nathan, declared that the person who found the baby Jesus earned an automatic ticket to eternal bliss. It was my girlfriend, now my wife, who found the plastic infant tucked inside her piece of cake. The revelers erupted in a chant: “Kelly’s going to heaven! Kelly’s going to heaven! Kelly’s going to heaven!”

The people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, by necessity, have recast their traditional celebrations for a pandemic-stricken world. There will be no crowds of tourists jostling about the French Quarter. The parade routes will lie fallow. In their place, residents are decorating their homes and lawns as substitute floats and calling this adaptation “Yardi Gras.” The idea began as a joke on social media but transmogrified into a necessary exuberance. In the midst of it all, the party goes on. Mardi Gras isn’t exactly known as all that holy of a holiday, but I do see something of the divine in such perseverance for, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”

Many, quite surely most, who celebrate Mardi Gras do not approach the following day with similar emotional intensity. And neither did I in my youth, having been raised in a Southern Baptist household. Ash Wednesday and the rest of the liturgical calendar was too formal and too Catholic for our sensibilities. But as I became older and as my theology changed, the rhythms of the Church Year became significant for me. When Starr King was still located on Le Conte Avenue in Berkeley, I would walk to All Souls Episcopal Church for the noon Ash Wednesday service. And every year, the same thing would happen to me. I joined the processional line to the altar. I stood before the priest, a stranger to me and I a stranger to them. My forehead was marked with ashes. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And every time, I would begin to cry. What haunting beauty finds me whenever the sacrament of my finitude is pressed upon my brow.

 From King Cake to ashes, from irrational joy to dreadful mortality. These are the poles of human existence. These are the truths I hold in my heart, together. Every Mardi Gras. Every Ash Wednesday. Every day.


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