Today is a week from Ash Wednesday, six days before Shrove Tuesday for the English, a day before Schmotziger Donnerstag (Greasy Thursday) for the Germans, and a few days after Quinquagesima Sunday, the last Sunday before Lent. Shrovetide starts roughly after the Christian Feasts of the Epiphany, the Epiphany marking the day when the Magi visited baby Jesus. Ash Wednesday then begins the days of fasting and self-denial for Lent. The forty days of Lent represent the forty days that Jesus wandered in the desert which lead into Easter, the day of Resurrection.
All of this marks the week leading up to Mardi Gras, a celebration where the Germans have sausages and sauerkraut for luck, the Lithuanians burn an effigy of winter, the women of Bourbon Street throw beads, and the samba music in Rio cranks up to full rhythmic energy for Carnival.
The religious roots of the festival certainly sound like a mishmash of biblical history, a mix of faith, history, culture, ritual, and Bible stories tumbled together in the dryer. Sausage is probably another apt metaphor as various bits of Jesus’ story are crammed together to string one feast to another, with a little self-denial in between. As we know, humans crave the celebration of faith and spirit, both in contemplation and joy, and we are a modern world, so this plays out across a modern backdrop.
Art changes, technology changes, context changes, but the desire to express stories and truths remains at the core.
This came to mind strongly last week as I was watching a performance of John Adams’ Gospel According to the Other Mary. Adams, a modern symphonic composer, is known for operas like Nixon in China and The Death of Leon Klinghoffer which use classical forms and traditions to incorporate contemporary history and modern musical motifs. His Gospel straddles the traditional and the modern. Although the story is modernized, it is a sincere expression of the Passion Story, not a critique. Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha run a shelter for homeless and battered women. Many are immigrants and targeted by the police for harassment. The opera starts with Mary in a jail cell, tormented by the screams of a heroine addict in the next cell and ends with the crucifixion and resurrection; on a Sunday morning where Mary is awakened by a mass trilling of frogs.
The music is discordant and raw, but the oratorio was sublimely played by the glorious San Francisco Symphony – complete with a dulcimer-like cimbalom and thirty tuned gongs from Thailand. It was the kind of music hard to like and hard to ignore. Lazarus, raised from the dead after dying from a terminal illness, climbs on the table at Passover and crows with ecstasy at being alive after coming back from the other side. His singing – though not tuneful and not hummable – was so vibrant that I kept expecting a beam of light to come down any minute and transport him heavenward.
I was similarly moved when I saw the movie Jesus Christ Superstar as an adolescent. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, either. I remember arguing with a friend at school who said it was blasphemous, primarily because Judas is allowed to have a point of view. He’s a modern political agitator – a simple man trying to make his way in the universe so to speak – trying to keep Jesus and the “resistance” group from getting arrested by the repressive Roman government. He is completely unable to comprehend the other plane upon which JC seems to be operating. Even Jesus – in his electrifying singing in Gethsamene – with hair-rising high notes from Ted Neely backed by explosive guitar riffs– even Jesus confesses he’s not sure he understands it. The mix of modern singing and biblical story was a controversial artistic view at the time, heretical to some, but to me a clearer explanation of the Passion than anything I’d learn in four years of Lutheran school. It’s the only Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that I’ve ever truly liked.
Modern culture – like those in Medieval or in Renaissance or in Victorian times – has to struggle with the attempts to keep stories alive for the faithful. I acquired a copy of The Manga Bible so that my children, raised on graphic novels and videogames, could learn the stories that permeate art and literature. The book, illustrated by Ajinbayo “Siku” Akinsiku, uses phenomenal drawings to bring the stories to life. Friends have scoffed at the concept, but like John Adams’ oratorio, the artwork is so inspiring that it does a better job at bringing the stories to life than any other casual reading. Siku himself is devoutly Christian and saw the artwork as a way to express his faith. Interestingly, some of the criticism is of the length of the work and how much is focused on the battles in the Old Testament. Which is funny since if you read the Bible, it is a very faithful rendition of that long and bloodthirsty section.
Like these modern productions of religious stories, the modern enactments of ancient rituals are also a mix of old and new, with bits and pieces of the original meaning overlaid to provide a great glorious soup of personality and human expression.
The history of Carnival across the world is that beautiful synthesis – melting pot to borrow the term – of many bits and pieces of religious history with unique local culture. There is variation at the very heart of the term: “carnival.” One origin hearkens back the days before Lent. To “avoid meat” in those days of fasting would lead to the Latin “Carne vale.” But another interpretation refers to a Roman spring festival where a ship is carried ritually through the streets, with a parade of revelers wearing masks, in order to bless the beginning of the sailing season. The festival was “carrus navalis” or “carnival.” Knowing that the Catholic Church went out of their way to merge early Christian rituals with existing Roman or pagan rites, the term probably derives from both.
It’s not much more than a hop, skip, and jump from there to Venice, where in the 12th century, the traders – especially the naval-based merchants – created a city-wide street party famous for its revelry and wearing of masks. Masks had long been part of European cultural spring rituals where anonymous mating that occurred might lead to all sorts of positive, er, harvests. The Venetians, wealthy from their trading, turned the masks into an ever more elaborate art form until the masqued ball became an integral part of their culture and ceremony.
The Portugese, strong Catholics like their Spanish neighbors, were also explorers and traders who brought Christianity to Brazil. They also brought a Shrove Tuesday tradition called “Entrudo,” meaning Entrance to Lent, a ceremony which evolved into a giant street fight where the wealthy threw bags of perfume at each other and the poor threw bags of water and lemon juice, flour, or mud. Over time, this morphed into a more constructive street display with parades, and that’s where the locals brought the rhythmic music, the samba with its wild, addictive, percussion beat.
Today, samba schools sign up to march in the Rio Carnival parade and spend months organizing and practicing their display. The order of the march, the theme displayed in the float, the progression, and the harmony of the songs, are all specified by tradition and judged according to standards – requirements as rigid and detailed as a Latin Mass itself.
As a final example, the French explorers brought Shrovetide celebrations with them as they mapped out the Mississippi. Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville camped about 60 miles downriver from the eventual spot of New Orleans and called his camp “Pointe du Mardi Gras” because it was, in fact, Shrove Tuesday on that particular day. By 1703, the nearby spot of Mobile, Alabama celebrated the first Mardi Gras becoming the oldest spot in the U.S. to do so. Over time, the French-influenced New Orleans adopted the notion of an ever elaborated masked ball and celebration – frequently banned by the local church and government – only to arise again in secret and then in public. Humans will not be denied the right to celebrate.
Eventually, by the late 19th century, the parades, King and Queen of Carnival, and floats were in full swing. In modern days, the celebration jostles elbows with other large-scale entertainments like the Super Bowl, the NBA All-Star Game, and the countdown to the Oscars. Modern attitudes are increasingly reflected. For example, in 1991 according to Wikipedia, an ordinance was passed that required social organizations to certify publicly that they did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, in order to obtain parade permits and other public licenses. This no doubt got the extremists fuming – if anyone is allowed to participate, who knows what kind of debauchery might ensue? (As if the level of revelry…throughout history… was not already at a perfectly high standard with or without discrimination!)
Ash Wednesday has also been modernized. Churches now offer Ashes to Go where the priests go out into the streets to bless the passers-by and commuters too busy to make it to the church for Ash Wednesday. It all seems perfectly appropriate. After all, wasn’t it Tiny Tim who says, “God Bless Us All, Everyone!” Or, wait, is that from a different mishmash of biblical and artistic history? No matter! Mardi Gras is coming. Put on some samba music and dance to the rhythm of the Bible – especially your Ecclesiastes —
There is a time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance – (Ecclesiastes 3:4)
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do…(Ecclesiastes 9:7)