“Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.” Chris Rose
“For everything there is a season.” The Book of Ecclesiastes
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
I was not born in New Orleans. But I believe I was born to live in New Orleans. I just completed my second Mardi Gras marathon, a Carnival season that makes most places’ ultimate parties look like a fundamentalist parish potluck for the clinically depressed. It cannot really be described for the uninitiated, and typical television coverage focuses on how tourists behave in a place where go-cups are the law and what happens here somehow stays in Las Vegas, which isn’t even close to reality (although its reality is not even close to reality either!). It is all sensory overload, unbridled creativity, unseemly exuberance, canonized weirdness, the passionate pursuit to catch anything thrown anywhere near you, political satire far sharper than your dullest politician (redundant, I know), and all while somehow remaining 90% family-friendly. It has to be seen to be believed, and in some ways it has to be believed before it can be seen.
I’ve paced myself over the last two seasons. Year one, I hit the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning and caught two coconuts, an unheard-of feat that my Louisiana neighbors alternatively blamed on beginners luck and then credited to God’s providence and prayer. I wore my full priestly attire last Mardi Gras day, all-black with a clerical collar, and added a coconut bra and grass skirt just to let people know that I really was a priest and really had come here from Hawaii. I know they were all convinced—or at least that’s what I told myself—when members of the Krewe of Rex, the granddaddy parade, pointed me out and repeatedly tossed high-class throws in my direction. This year was no different, even though I wore civilian garb. I caught a glittering high-heel shoe at the all-female Krewe of Muses parade on Thursday evening, blue beads that were licked and tossed by Gene Simmons of Kiss at the Saturday night Endymion parade (a spectacle that can only be described as Mardi Gras on steroids), and since New Orleans even has a beer-and-toilet-themed parade during the day on Saturday (Tucks, as in the Friar, among other things), I came home with purple toilet paper and a plush poop emoji that reads “Tucks Happens.”
This year, I somehow scheduled myself to preach on Ash Wednesday, at three services, starting at 7:30 a.m. It’s ok. Here in Louisiana the Carnival Season ends promptly at 12:00 midnight, and police officers on horseback sweep through the French Quarter, shutting it down with unquestionable authority. At the stroke of Wednesday morning, the celebration ends and Lent begins. Believe it or not, attendance at Ash Wednesday services is consistently strong. Carnival veterans end their days early on Fat Tuesday. For me, Fat Tuesday this year was actually “the day before Ash Wednesday.” Since I had to be coherent and well-prepared to preach and place ashes on foreheads with the accuracy of an archer, I decided to stay home in my small town of Covington and not venture into the big city.
That decision turned out to be a tremendous blessing. I live right on the parade route in Covington, right on the corner where it turns. The Lions Club Covington parade is way more low-key than the spectacles in the city, but I was able to sit on my front porch with my dogs Nawiliwili Nelson and Sinbad and watch as the local parade passed by. Small town parades, especially in Louisiana, are the best! Wili decided that his four favorite floats at the parade were the Pontchartrain Waste Services Truck (he thought it smelled delicious), the Glory Bail Bonds Van (because let’s face it—it isn’t really Mardi Gras in Louisiana until someone calls the Bail Bondsman!), the Hillbilly Outhouse float (don’t ask, but dogs know what they like), and, Number One for the entire family, the Luau by the Sea Float (because he’s from Hawaii and he never met a luau, regardless of location, that he did not eat). Neither of us is giving up Kalua pig for Lent!
Being relatively new here, I’m still amazed by Carnival season, Mardi Gras parades, and all the energy, creativity, commitment, and hard work that goes into Krewes and costumes and all the revelry that surrounds and sweeps us up into some exhilarating, celebratory moments. But what may be even more amazing on Mardi Gras Day was the extraordinary clean-up crew that followed the parade. Perhaps even more entertaining—and certainly more life-impacting—than the bead-throwers may be the bead-gatherers. There was a giant Street Sweeper that rivaled any float at Endymion. There were John Deere carts with strategically placed blowers that were more powerful than the pull-no-punches political statements that rolled down St. Charles Avenue in the city. And then there was a literal army of orange-vested workers, looking not unlike Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club, who scoured the entire landscape, including my front yard, to remove every piece of garbage that was left behind. Some of them, I noticed, even got down on their hands and knees to make sure they hadn’t missed anything, removing all that was worthless, getting rid of everything that was a blight on the landscape of our lives on West 23rd Street. This crew, with a C rather than a K, was consumed with the important task of putting the world back in place, getting things back to their rightful state, making things whole, beautiful, and habitable again. And it wasn’t just a one-time shot. They made several passes, numerous attempts to get it right, to make sure they hadn’t overlooked anything that needed to be eliminated, cleared out, cleaned up, or washed away. Which brings us to the Day after Mardi Gras, a day known as Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.
It is a rare gift, an entire season, an invitation to belong to a Crew that does the hard work of cleaning up any mess we may have made along the way of our lives and in this world that God created and loves. It is 40 whole days to be made whole, to restore order, to find those things that sully not just our lawns but our lives, and get rid of them. Lent is the good news that, in God’s Kingdom, we can be clean, we can be restored, and we can be made right, recreated in God’s original image of light, life, and love. Lent does not come along as a season to rain on any of our parades, but as a season to power wash the mistakes, the poor choices, the bad habits, the wrong ordering of priorities, of all those things that just don’t belong in a place where you’d like to live, a street on which you choose to make a real and lasting home. It may mean for you that this season means less about “cleaning up” at the parade, as in accumulating things that, in the end, are really pretty worthless, and more about “cleaning up” after the parade, taking an honest, hard, deep, truthful look at ourselves and our choices. In Lent we “clean up” by giving away, being generous, going deeper, and spending time in prayer, priorities, and a pilgrimage toward the city of eternal celebration and true joy—not New Orleans in this case but Jerusalem. This is the season in which we are called to put on our bright orange vests and our walking shoes and tell everyone we’ve got work to do, starting with ourselves, and we’ve got places to be, and people to see, walking toward God’s ultimate desire for our lives and our world. Some of us may find ourselves on our hands and knees this season, taking a closer look at what needs to go, taking a closer look at the needs of world, and carefully considering what “throws” God calls us to share with the world—reaching out with kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding. The good news is that we have a powerful Crew (with a C), a Community of unconditional love, eternal understanding, and faithful accountability, soul friends who will walk with us every step of the way.
Parades are fun. They make my heart beat. But pilgrimages are transformative. They make our souls sing. Create in us this Lent, O God, clean hearts. Renew a right spirit within each of us.