For those who are interested in such things, Mardi Gras is officially coming up this week. In case you don’t know a lot about it, the term Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” which is Feb. 28 this year. Of course, there have already been a couple of weeks of celebrations in some places, and even Mr. Facebook himself included a visit to a Mardi Gras parade in Mobile as part of his trip to Alabama this week.
Mardi Gras is supposedly a Christian tradition, borne out of French Catholicism, and begins after the liturgical feasts of the Epiphany, culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday. The emphasis of Fat Tuesday is on the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season. Somehow it seems that a few other rituals of excess have been added to the tradition over the years.
I have never been a big fan of Mardi Gras, for reasons that I hope are obvious, but I am intrigued by the history of it, especially in the United States. Though New Orleans is known as the center of Mardi Gras in America, the first organized celebration in the New World that was to become the United States was in the settlement of what is now Mobile, Alabama in 1703. In the more than three centuries since, it has developed into celebrations all along the Gulf Coast in areas with early French colonial heritage.
There are other similar traditions around the world. In Switzerland every year, in the city of Basel, the festival of Fasnacht is held. Like Mardi Gras, the event takes its name from the start of the fasting season of Lent. Before beginning this time of penance and doing without, there are three days of parties and festivities and revelry.
Presbyterian pastor and author James Montgomery Boice lived in Basel three years during some of his theological study. He described the carnival as a time of riotous behavior in which the normally restrained and stolid Baselers let themselves go morally. Apparently, what makes the event especially popular is that, like in Mardi Gras, the revelers wear masks. With their identity completely veiled, they are emboldened to do what they would be ashamed to be known for doing otherwise.
Each year during Fasnacht, however, the Salvation Army challenges people to a higher standard of behavior by placing large posters around the city bearing the German inscription: “Gott sieht hinter deine Maske,” Or, “God sees behind your mask.”
It’s a great truth, but also a great reminder to all of us, whether we are participating in debauchery or hypocricy. We don’t have to be in Switzerland or New Orleans or even Mobile to hide behind a mask. It doesn’t require a Mardi Gras or Fashacht observance to hide ourselves behind pretense and to try to mask who we really are. But God is not deceived by our outward deception, He is not blinded by our pretense, and He sees behind our masks. He knows what’s really going on in our hearts and lives.
That may on the surface seem like bad news, that we are “busted” in our hypocrisy, but in reality it is good news, that God knows who we really are, and He loves us anyway. No doubt, we shouldn’t hide in our sin, like the revelers in Basel or New Orleans, but neither should we hide under a cover of self-righteousness, any time of year.
So, may the words of that Salvation Army sign remind you to come clean, take off your mask and get real before the Lord who sees you, and knows you, and loves you infinitely and unconditionally. I am praying for you, as I hope you are for me, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.