Not spring yet

In New Orleans, this is the big Mardi Gras weekend. If you wanted to see a lot of parades, hear a lot of music, and eat a lot of really good food, this weekend would be the time to be there. Perhaps no place in the United States plays up the season just before Lent as much as New Orleans. Of course, if you were going to be there, it would have made sense to do a lot of planning. The tickets for the bleachers may all be sold, the restaurants will have lines and VIP passes would be helpful, motels and hotels are full and reservations would have been a good idea. And those who haven’t planned ahead may even have trouble finding a public restroom. Maybe the crowds aren’t quite as big as some years in the past, but Mardi Gras is a big deal in New Orleans.

I’ve never been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Lent is an important time in my life. I try to build up plenty of energy for extra services, extra study groups and extra prayer during the season.

Mardi Gras is technically only one day: The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The name of the festival refers to the tradition of cleaning the house and pantry in preparation for the season of fasting. All of the butter and other fat was removed in some traditions and so a feast to consume that fat grew up with the tradition of preparation. Pancakes became one of the staple foods of Mardi Gras - a way to consume some of the fat in preparation for six weeks of focus on austerity and fasting. The festivals that grew up expanded to consume more days, however, and now the celebrations can last for much of the season of Epiphany.

There are all kinds of ties to pre-Christian celebrations incorporated into the traditions and behaviors of the season. In some places, traditions of mid-winter festivals have been adopted and adapted. In other places, Mardi Gras reflects and anticipation of spring. Of course the date can vary quite a bit. The dates are determined by counting backwards from Easter. In 325 the Council of Nicaea established that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. Their method of determining the vernal equinox, however, was slightly less precise than in our modern times, so they simply used the fixed date of March 21 for the vernal equinox. Then of course, there is the issue of variations in calendars. The calendar we use in our time was adopted in 1582 and is named after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it specifically for the purpose of changing the date of Easter. It replaced he Julian Calendar, implemented in 46 BC by Julius Caesar.

Once you’ve found the right calendar and determined when Easter occurs, you have to count backwards 46 days to find Ash Wednesday. That’s forty days of fasting with six Sundays as festival days. Then add one day for Shrove Tuesday.

If you haven’t got all of that figured out, you can do what I do, which is to use a calendar on which someone else has already marked the days for Easter and Ash Wednesday. At any rate, Ash Wednesday can fall as early as February 4 or as late as March 10 and so this year, with it falling on February 14, is fairly early, but not quite as early as is possible.

Whatever the reasons, this year it is hard to get spring festivals in mind because right now, it is just plain cold outside. It is cold enough that partying is not recommended, especially if you don’t have a warm and secure place to shelter.

It has been a topic of debate in our community since two people were found frozen to death last Sunday morning near the I90 bridge. The woman who died had been in a “popup” shelter the night before she died. People who are working to help homeless people have created shelters, usually in church basements, that they open on some of the coldest nights. The shelters, however, are short of staff and it is a bit unpredictable which nights they will be open. The police chief has been critical of the shelters because they house people who are drunk and some allow people to bring alcohol inside. Shelter organizers call for police help when a person who is drunk causes a disturbance.

The police chief wrote a message to the mayor and city council members criticizing the shelters for being inconsistent and suggested that they might even be contributing to the problem of intoxicated people out on the streets at night. The newspaper has picked up on that memo and run several stories that have fueled debate in our community.

Cold weather and people who consume too much alcohol are a deadly mix. And we haven’t found a perfect solution as a community. We don’t really have a place for people who are intoxicated to go on a regular basis. The rescue mission is not set up to provide services to people who are currently intoxicated. The city and county do run an alcohol and drug treatment center that provides safe shelter, but there are those who avoid that facility. It will soon be relocated and there are plans for a restoration center at the new location that will provide additional services.

In the meantime, having those who are trying to help arguing with each other doesn’t look like progress towards finding a solution.

So I’m avoiding any Mardi Gras type celebrations this year. We will have a pancake supper at our church on Ash Wednesday as we have combined the traditions for our people into a single night’s event, but it is an alcohol-free event. It is appropriate to mourn the loss of life and to stay out of the finger pointing and blaming that is part of our public discussion at this time.

We’ll be working to deliver firewood to those who need it. Any little bit of warmth is a blessing in these cold days.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!