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Fasching—Mardi gras—is certainly not a Church festival. Yet, on the other hand, it is unthinkable apart from the Church’s calendar” begins Cardinal Ratzinger’s reflection “Mardi Gras: The Ground of Our Freedom.”

It is hard to imagine Mardi Gras as “the ground of our freedom” when it seems rooted in excess behavior and worldly affairs, where, for some, immoderation is the perfection of Mardi Gras. When practiced appropriately, Mardi Gras is a feast about Christian hope.

First, although not a liturgical feast in itself, its location in the liturgical calendar points to a truth about humans and the necessity for leisure. Ratzinger turns to Scripture: “For everything there is a season. . . A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiates 3:1ff). The Church’s year provides a rhythm for man and the changes of the liturgical seasons remind man “of the varied gift of creation.”

Josef Pieper comes to mind in how we can take Mardi Gras as a time for leisure:

The celebration of a feast. . .combines all three elements that also constitute leisure: first, nonactivity and repose; second, ease and absence of exertion; third, leave from the everyday functions and work. . . .

At this point there appears an inevitable consideration that to most people, as I have frequently experienced, seems quite uncomfortable. Put in a nutshell, it is this: to celebrate means to proclaim, in a setting different from the ordinary everyday, our approval of the world as such. Those who do not consider reality as fundamentally “good” and “in the right order” are not able to truly celebrate, no more than they are able to “achieve leisure”. In other words: leisure depends on the pre-condition that we find the world and our own selves agreeable. And here follows the offensive but inevitable consequence: the highest conceivable form of approving of the world as such is found in the worship of God, in the praise of the Creator, in the liturgy. With this we have finally identified the deepest root of leisure.

Returning to Ratzinger, we can celebrate Mardi Gras and partake in its leisurely activity when we reflect on its Christian origins: Mardi Gras, in its merriment and light-hearted affairs, mocked the pagan gods—represented by demonic masks—who enslaved us in the fear of death and the harsh elements of life. Mardi Gras, when understood in its accidental liturgical context, has the potential to bring us to God, and it does when we think of it as a celebration that foreshadows our joy at the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, that joy that can say “Death where is thy sting?” “Only love that is almighty can ground a joy that is free from anxiety,” says Ratzinger, and on this note can we happily partake in Mardi Gras celebrations and joyfully enter the penitential season of Lent. 

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