Mardi Gras has come and gone without much fanfare. You know you live in a decadent society when even days dedicated to excess have trouble standing out from every other day of the year.
In A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor writes about Carnival as a “time of misrule” in which the traditional order of things was “turned upside down.” Yet we already live in that world of misrule. The “social release valve” of Carnival makes little sense to us. While there remains some residue of the older concept — perhaps our carefully planned holidays are attempts to “break out” of some set order — a festival of misrule no longer happens for society as a whole. After the French Revolution, Taylor thinks, the very idea becomes unintelligible. The original meaning of Carnival is no longer available in a disenchanted, secular age — even though its “anti-structure” has become the monotonous hum of our age.
We are left with the terrifying thought that there can be no turning upside down of a world that already thinks that up is down and down is up, that asserts a male is now a female, or that parades a vice as a virtue. Isn’t everyone exhausted by a world in which it’s always Carnival and never Lent? The only real “social release valve” conceivable today is the one which upends the misrule, and releases us from the tyranny.
Ash Wednesday is a smudge on the forehead, a crack in the wall, a tearing of the garment — a release valve — something disruptive in an apparently smooth structure. It is a code which gives believers and unbelievers alike pause. In a world saturated in death, it brings the code of our mortality before ourselves and our neighbors in a strange key.
Our medieval counterparts understood this better than we do. In The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voragine says that Septuagesima — when the Alleluia ceased to be said — initiated a time of “deviation and exile” when “we put aside the chants of joy.” Rather than the regular threats of an economic collapse, or an ecological or viral disaster, the cataclysmic suddenly becomes something interior.
Voragine speaks of the brief time before Lent as a mystical representation of exile in the Church. “In this time of exile, therefore, the Church, weighed down with many troubles and almost driven to despair, with deep sighs cries out in her liturgy, saying: ‘The sorrows of death have surrounded me.’” How frequently can we say today that the Church is weighed down with many troubles! How often do we say that the sorrows of death surround us? To be saved in this time of deviation and exile, Voragine writes, we must “labor in the vineyard of the soul, pruning away vices and sins.” The time is given not for some other person to be pruned, but for us.
The weeks of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima become a movement in the Church from Exile to Vineyard, in which we beg God to root up the weeds of our soul, and plant within us the seeds of Christ’s Passion. St Thomas Aquinas, for example, meditates on the scourging of Christ right before he turns his meditation towards Ash Wednesday, which in turn leads him to reflect on our mortality, which in turn moves us into the Quadragesima — or the forty days of Lent which we have now begun.
It’s true that Lenten fasting was more austere for Aquinas than it is for us today. But it’s purpose was the same: to offer a humble sacrifice of penance that unites us to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Doing penance means prayer, fasting, and almsgiving — yet fasting remains distinctly associated with Lent. Christ fasted for forty days, and so even in our time, it seems right that the central “work” of Lent is fasting. While the obligations have been lessened over the years, the priority of fasting remains. That’s because it’s in fasting that both body and soul are purified. The soul is elevated, even as the body is ordered to an end higher than it’s sensual desires. Augustine adds that fasting “makes the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of desire, puts out the flames of lust and the true light of chastity.”
Voragine says this is a “season of penance in which everything is forgiven.” It does begin with the sorrows of death—the imposition of ashes upon our forgetful foreheads. But Voragine’s comment tells the great secret about Lent. It’s an easy yoke, not a heavy one. Even if we take on the more demanding fasts of the great saints, Lent does something that Carnival, and our world, never can — Lent purifies us for the deepest gladness.