The term ‘Mardi Gras’ is French for “Fat Tuesday,” the last day of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting associated with the Lenten season. This day of food and fun is also referred to as Carnivale, a word that literally means “farewell to meat,” and Shrove Tuesday from the word shrive which means to confess. Mardi Gras is often a time of wild celebration, “the storm before the calm,” especially in cities like New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro.
In the calendar of Western Christianity Ash Wednesday occurs forty-eight days before Easter. Its name derives from the practice of placing ashes in the form of a cross on the forehead accompanied by the words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This ritual is meant to be a reminder that life is passing and precious, brief and blessed. Ashes for this service are residue from burnt palm branches used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration.
The forty days of Lent recall the same period of time Jesus is said to have spent in the desert prior to his public life/ministry. Typically a time of repentance, sacrifice, and disciplines such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, Lenten practices are undertaken to prepare us for the celebration of Easter.
Lent is usually thought of as a somber time, but ‘lent’ is from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning longer days. During Lent nature in the northern hemisphere is undergoing a transition from winter to spring, darkness to light, cold to warmth, death to new life. So it is with us; Lent is meant to be a time not only of sober self-denial but one whose focus has to do with becoming more alive, more positive, more passionate, and more compassionate.
It is commonly thought that Lent extends until Easter, but according to Church directives Lent actually ends with the Triduum (three days) which begins on Holy Thursday and includes Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Also, the Sundays during Lent can be considered “days off’ from whatever form of Lenten discipline one may have adopted.