This is Shrove Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras. I said it that way because while most Protestant denominations pay scant attention to Lent and Mardi Gras, it seems that many UUs have taken a step beyond inattention to cultural illiteracy on the subject- which I think is a shame.
I’ve been thinking about this since doing coffee hour Sunday, with our service group, The Channing Club. When we do coffee hour, we like to decorate the table holding the cream, sugar, and snacks. This time we did a Mardi Gras theme, and I wore the green, purple, and yellow jester’s hat I picked up in New Orleans. A number of people asked why the hat, and I usually smiled and answered “Just confirming what everyone always suspected about me.” But there were a surprising number who actually hadn’t a clue about Mardi Gras. “Oh, what, is that this weekend?” “Well, Tuesday is technically Mardi Gras, but it’s actually the end of the whole Carnival season.” “Really!”
It surprised me how many knew how little about Mardi Gras, even to the point about not knowing about its connection to Lent. Of course, there wasn’t time while serving coffee for lectures on the subject, nor is it my place to do so. But a lot of Protestant denominations are rethinking their position on Lent, thinking they may have been hasty ditching it along with other Catholic practices in the schism, that it may have been one of the babies in the bathwater- and I think they may be right, and that it wouldn’t hurt we UUs to take another look at it.
Those who know Lent only from childhood Catholic friends who had to give up chocolate or gum or comic books for a month are unaware of the valuable symbolism involved. Lent commemorates Jesus' first step into his ministry- he spent forty days in the wilderness praying, fasting, learning to handle doubts and temptations. Those who practice Lent do so because they are aware that whether they like it or not, their lives too are a ministry; that the world will judge Christianity by the actions of Christians. The idea is to spend forty days out of the year in spiritual contemplation, practicing and testing your discipline and devotion.
This seems to me to be an excellent practice for UUs to adopt. It’s non-denominational; Jesus didn’t invent the practice- the forty day trial is a recurring theme in the Bible. For example, Moses stayed on the Mountain of God forty days (Exodus 24:18 and 34:28), Elijah traveled forty days before he reached the cave where he had his vision (1 Kings 19:8), Nineveh was given forty days to repent (Jonah 3:4). Thus, a UU Lent would include a tradition that Jews and Muslims could share as well, and excludes no one- though a Pagan, the Divine knows I could certainly use periods of discipline and contemplation. Even some atheists may benefit from a little introspection. I think if carefully thought out, a UU Lent could be a useful and unifying practice for us.