Like it or not, Christmas has left us. In the Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite we must make do with the first bout of Ordinary Time (a name Benedict XVI confessed to not liking). In the Extraordinary Form and the ex-Anglican Ordinariates, this season continues to bear its hallowed name of “Time after Epiphany”.
The following season is Septuagesima, which begins with the Sunday it takes its name from – February 17 in 2019. The name refers to “Seventy”, as in days till Easter. As a result, the two following Sundays are called Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, as in “Sixty” and “Fifty” (Lent in Latin is Quadragesima, hence the Spanish Cuaresma and French Carême). The two days after Quinquagesima Sunday – Lundi and Mardi Gras in French – lead inevitably into Ash Wednesday. Either way you cut it, we are in Pre-Lent.
We Latins, of course, take the plunge into Lent cold turkey, as midnight on Mardi Gras drops us into the penitential season like a jump into a cold pool. Our Eastern brethren ease into it; first the aftermath of Meat Fare Sunday banishes flesh, then the Monday after Cheese Fare Sunday deprives them of eggs and dairy products. Although their entrance dates differ from ours, our ancestors once kept Lent in much the same manner, giving up meat, dairy, and eggs. Hence the great alternative name to this season – Carnival, meaning “goodbye meat” in Latin.
To this day, under many slightly different spellings, Carnival season – in the Catholic world from Quebec to Rio, from Rome to Cologne, and from Venice to Vienna – means a season of raucous partying. Depending on where you go, parades with incredible floats, masked costume balls and lots of food and drink comprise the larger part of the celebrations. Often enough, the celebrations are seized upon – especially by tourists – as excuses for less innocent pleasures. So one might well wonder how all of this excess came to be, and whether there is anything of value in it for the practising Catholic.
As mentioned earlier, our ancestors kept Lent as strictly as the Eastern Christians – Catholic and Orthodox – are supposed to today. This meant that all excess meat, dairy products and eggs had to be consumed by the stroke of midnight on Ash Wednesday. In many places, because that meant using up oil, crêpes of various kinds became popular – and have remained so in England for Shrove Tuesday, long after the Reformation tore Britain from Christendom. With such a Lent on the horizon – and given that parties and merrymaking in general were frowned on in Lent, save for a few particular feasts – consumption of food was accompanied by the kind of dancing and masquing our forebears loved. Obviously, each locale celebrated the period differently, but the broad outlines remained the same.
In time, certain places became renowned for their extensive displays and feasting; those Protestants who banished Lent from their lands likewise pushed out Carnival. But in time the name became associated with any travelling show, and as is well known the custom itself spread throughout the Catholic portions of the Americas. Human nature being what it is, Carnival could lead to excesses – but even here the Church had an answer: the Forty Hours’ Devotion was introduced so that the devout could pray and make reparation to Our Eucharistic Lord for the sins committed by their brethren during the season.
Starting with the period before the French Revolution, however, Lenten discipline in the West was successively relaxed to the point where we are now: fasting (seen as having two small and one large meal) and abstinence from meat only on Good Friday and Ash Wednesday, and abstinence alone on the Fridays in Lent.
As this process was matched by an ever wilder growth in the Carnival frenzy, Dom Guéranger, writing on the season in his Liturgical Year, asked a question even more poignant today: “And they too, who claim dispensations from abstinence and fasting during Lent, and, for one reason or another, evade every penitential exercise during the solemn 40 days of penance, and will find themselves at Easter as weighed down by the guilt and debt of their sins as they were on Ash Wednesday – what meaning, we would ask, can there possibly be in their feast-making at Shrove-tide?”
The answer, for us, is a relatively simple one. We have no control over our leadership in Church and state, who seemingly present us every day with new horrors. But we can control our own behaviour. If we resolve to keep Lent as strictly as we can – not only by fasting and abstaining more in the spirit of our predecessors, but also by giving alms and praying and frequenting the Sacraments more, than we have a right to enjoy ourselves in these next few weeks. That is, so long as our celebrations don’t land us in the Confessional.
Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles and Vienna