Is Mardi Gras a time of innocent parties and family-friendly parades or is it something darker: a celebration of pagan gods and immoral behavior that must be repented for and forgiven on Ash Wednesday?
Pastors disagree. Some say Christians should stay far away from Mardi Gras, while others make room for Louisiana’s traditions, urging tolerance and forgiveness but not condoning immoral behavior.
Count the Rev. T.C. “Tommy” French Jr., emeritus pastor of Jefferson Baptist Church, among those who sees evil at work when people gather for parades and ask those on the floats to throw them something.
“On the outside it’s just a lot of fun, but on the inside it’s the worship of pagan gods and the ascent of one class of people over another class of people,” French said. “They parade in the name of the pagan gods like Bacchus and Comus.
“Our Founding Fathers in 1776 decided we didn’t need kings or queens,” he said. “The slogan was, ‘No king but King Jesus,’ but yet here we have a group of people who set themselves up as royalty, ride high on a float, overlooking the peons and throw them a pittance — plastic beads from China.”
Bishop Charles E. Wallace, founder and senior pastor of Oasis Christian Church in north Baton Rouge, also objects to what he sees as pagan worship and tells his approximate 1,000 members to stay away from Mardi Gras events and especially New Orleans.
“I don’t think that any God-fearing person should participate in it, although many do because they are ignorant of its origins,” Wallace said. “I think all the evil spirits come out at that time.”
But the Rev. David Crosby, as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans, has a nearby view of Mardi Gras in the Crescent City and compares the celebration with any other folk festival, placing personal responsibility for behavior squarely on the individual.
“You can make it ‘Family Gras’ or you can make it God-awful,” Crosby said in an email.
Christians need to cautiously consider whether to participate in Mardi Gras activities, said the Rev. Mark R. Turner, pastor of All Saints Anglican.
Turner’s small congregation of former Episcopalians meets in a former fire station at the Barringer Foreman Technology Park along Airline Highway in Baton Rouge and is part of the Anglican Mission of Americas.
“If you as a Christian know you cannot go to a Mardi Gras parade without intentionally sinning, then you ought not do it,” Turner said. “Jesus never says, ‘Do the best you can.’ He says, ‘Don’t sin.’”
The Rev. Tom Ranzino, pastor of St. Jean Vianney Catholic Church, chancellor of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, and director of the diocese’s Office of Worship, contends “people can experience the Mardi Gras day without losing their religion.”
The priest sees Mardi Gras as “part of our Louisiana heritage” and another way of “giving glory to God who made us with the ability to celebrate and enjoy time.”
“Just because there is an experience called Mardi Gras, going doesn’t mean that everybody is going out with the intention to be sinful,” Ranzino said. “Sometimes a parade is just a parade.”
Because Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday and Lent were overlaid onto ancient, pagan holidays and traditions by the early church, Catholics often have a different view of it than Protestants.
“A lot of our celebrations have pagan roots in terms of cultural celebrations, but we’ve either Christianized them or tamed them so they no longer serve that same purpose,” Ranzino said.
He read from a Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, “The popes, as temporal rulers of their state, acknowledged the carnival practices in Rome by regulating its observance, correcting its abuses and providing entertainment for the masses.”
For example, Ranzino said, Pope Paul II introduced Carnival pageants and founded a horse race that continues today.
“It seems that a Christian pope was trying to regulate and moderate while still providing that bridge over which people could be entertained before they entered a season they were not allowed to have entertainment,” Ranzino added.
But French sees the blending of pagan and Christian holidays as an “error” made by the early Church.
“That was the problem God had with ancient Israel,” French said. “They tried to mix Baal-ism with Jehovah worship, and God says, ‘You need to make up your mind who you will serve.’”
A Mardi Gras symbol of giving up eating beef is the “Boeuf Gras,” the procession of the fat ox, on “Fat Tuesday,” or a parade float of a bull. A bull is also a symbol of pagan Baal-ism in biblical and historic literature, and some scholars see the golden calf in the Old Testament account of the Exodus as symbolic of that pagan religion.
“God was very displeased with Israel when Moses came down and found them worshipping the golden calf,” Wallace said.
“Let’s glorify God and not glorify the devil,” he said. “Let our light shine so men can see our good works and glorify our father which is in heaven and not some statue or float or trinkets or beads.”
When it comes to Mardi Gras, Crosby is the more concerned about immorality than any perceived paganism.
“We encourage people to represent the Lord Jesus well, to refuse unwise and immoral activities,” the New Orleans pastor said. “My message for the Sunday before Mardi Gras Day will be on the virtue of temperance or self-control.
“Whether during Mardi Gras or any other time, we are accountable to God for our behavior Mardi Gras is not a free pass morally,” he said. “Decadence, drunkenness, and debauchery are sins in any season.”
Turner cautions, “We can’t approach (Mardi Gras) with the attitude that, ‘I can do whatever I want during Mardi Gras, because I’ve got Ash Wednesday and Lent coming up to atone for my sins. That’s a convoluted understanding of the Gospel, because we don’t atone for our sins. Christ has done that work.”
Turner, a former U.S. Marine scout-sniper, views Mardi Gras as “an easy target” for Christian outreach.
“Many people at Mardi Gras aren’t going there to lose their relationship with Christ. They don’t have a relationship with Christ,” Turner said. “There are people at Mardi Gras who have a giant, empty hole in them that needs to be filled — that they can’t fill with the things at Mardi Gras. They are hungry and can only be fed with the Bread of Life.”
The Catholic church doesn’t condone outrageous and immoral behavior, but also understands that sin doesn’t only show itself during Mardi Gras time, Ranzino said.
“It is part of the human condition as well as the experience of God’s grace at work leading us to goodness. Our experience of Ash Wednesday does mark the beginning for us of a whole period of time of fasting, alms-giving and doing penance,” the priest said. “It’s not exclusively of what was done the night before, but it is a season of conversion to call us back to our original innocence of baptism.”
Ash Wednesday should serve as a bridge from one season of “ordinariness of life” into a time of more holy living, he said. “We’re leaving behind the way of life we were living before without much thought to fasting and alms-giving and prayer and we’re telling people during these next 40 days of Lent we’re going to be operating in a different way.
“When the street cleaners come through at midnight Tuesday,” Ranzino said, “the party is over. We’re into a new time.”