By whatever name it is called, Carnival, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Fastnacht, people know Mardi Gras, whether Catholic or not. Whether they know the purpose of it is another matter, since Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the best known example of the celebration in North America, seems to be a celebration of cheap beads, alcohol, and breasts. Not exactly faith, hope and charity, unless they are the names of soon to be repentant young women on Bourbon Street.
The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is a day of celebration, truly, in preparation for Lent, in which, traditionally, many foods, such as butter, oils, eggs and flour were used up to get ready for Lenten fasting. Given that these celebrations developed long after the New Testament was written, what passages best speak to the preparation for Lent? The readings for the Monday (James 1:1-11) and Tuesday (James 1:12-18) of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time speak both to the trials that tempt us from the path of God and that besiege us while we are on the path of God.
A key word that binds together the Monday and Tuesday readings is peirasmos, or trial, which is translated as such in the NAB in James 1:2, but is then translated as "temptation" in 1:12-15, though with good reason, since James 1:12-16 hearkens to the "Lord’s Prayer" and the traditional rendering of peirasmos in the "Lord’s Prayer" is temptation. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind the dual sense of peirasmos: trial/temptation. Another key word for me in these passages is the word teleios, which is translated as "perfect" in 1:4 and a verbal form in 1:15, apotelestheisa, which is translated there as "reaches maturity." Finally, I want to focus on hypomene, "perseverance" or "endurance" in 1:3 and 1:12.
Trials might be actual challenges that come our way in terms of job loss, or death of a friend or family member, or simply an attempt to try to live a holy life in which we seem always to stumble, through which we must persevere in our faith, struggling to make sense and meaning out of our loss. Trials might also be seen more in terms of yielding to desires, grasping for pleasures instead of virtues, as James warns us in 1:12-15. James tells us, though, to "consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (1:2-4). This is easier to read, and to say, than it is to do, but to what extent do we take it seriously when confronted with trials? My basic instinct is to recoil from trials, but on the other hand, I tend to be stubborn and to persevere no matter how disconcerting and discouraging my sins and their stupid prevalence because I do not know what else to do. Perseverance matters, James tells us, it matters in creating "perfect" Christians, which might be better seen as those who have been refined by fire, who have become "whole," "complete," or even "mature" in their faith. Says James in 1:12: "Blessed is he who perseveres in temptation,
for when he has been proven he will receive the crown of life that he promised to those who love him."
Given that trials and temptations will come, and the rewards for perseverance, what are the options? Since we are sinners, we will sometimes give in to our weaknesses and it is there that we have a decision to make. Do we persevere in the faith, pick ourselves up, and learn anew the depth of our faith? Or do we give up? A comedian jokes about his grandfather telling his mother, "that boy has a lot of quit in him." It makes my teenage son howl with laughter: the idea of "quit" is a compelling one at age 13, when you have to figure out your gifts, your talents, your time, and what paths you should pursue. At that age, sometimes you have to choose another path or another use of your time - "a lot of quit" does not describe him at all - but there is one path on which we must all simply persevere, and that is the path of virtue or righteousness. James writes that "each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death" (1:14-15).
Just as faith can reach "maturity," so, too, can sin. So if and when you stumble, whether at Mardi Gras or during your Lenten fast, there is no option but to get up, dust yourself off, and persevere, endure, on the path of righteousness. Keep on marching, for who dat, who dat, who dat say they gonna’ beat these saints?
John W. Martens