By Riley Manning
TUPELO – If anyone knows Mardi Gras, it’s Christi Houin. Born and raised Catholic in New Orleans, Houin and her family have lived in Tupelo for the past 18 years.
Despite the commercial popularity of Mardi Gras, Houin said growing up, it was impossible to separate the Mardi Gras season – also known as Carnival – from its religious roots.
“Mardi Gras is the last big blowout before Lent,” she said. “For us, it was all about family, indulging and spending time together.”
Carnival, she said, is a celebration of mortality, the pleasures of being human, of eating and drinking and being merry. The time serves as a foil to the Lenten season, a time of self-denial and spiritual assessment practiced in solidarity with Christ’s temptations related in the gospels.
“I think they complement each other well,” Houin said. “Different people give up different things for Lent, and in our family, we always tried to replace what we gave up with something good. I figure for what Christ did for me, it’s the least I could do. And isn’t it interesting the minute after you give something up is exactly when you want it the most?”
The Lent tradition recalls Jesus’s 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, before gathering his disciples and beginning his public ministry. It is at the end of this period when he is famously tempted by the devil, who tells him to change stones to bread, jump from the top of a temple and ask God to save him, and finally, offers him all the kingdoms of the world.
“This is an important piece of the story for Jesus,” said the Rev. Paul Stephens, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo. “The temptations are an opportunity for Jesus to develop his humanity, to understand more fully what it is going to mean to be fully divine in a fully human place.”
When thinking about Jesus being in line with the prophets who foretold his coming, Stephens said Christ’s fulfillment is proof of a God who continues to be at work in the world.
Furthermore, Stephens noted the things Christ is tempted with are concrete examples of mankind’s brokenness.
“The fasting aspect of the story has two dimensions for us,” he said. “An emptying of one’s self, and a filling of ourselves with the holy spirit.”
Stephens also said fasting lends him a sensation of edginess, a sensation that has a way of deepening his prayer life during the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
“Lent builds tension from week to week, so by Holy Week, the final week leading up to the resurrection, we’re not only reading the story, but experiencing it ourselves,” he said.
The Rev. Will Rambo, teaching pastor at The Orchard in Tupelo, said today’s practitioners of Lent give up everything from candy to social media.
But despite the modernity of their sacrifices, the challenge and significance hold fast.
“It’s a time for making strategic decisions to deepen your relationship with God,” Rambo said. “For Jesus, his time in the wilderness was one of both denial and pursuit. Basically, you lay something aside, but what do you put in its place?”
The act of sacrifice, Rambo said, is meant to make us aware of where we are weakest.
“The devil waits until after the 40 days, when Jesus is tired and hungry to offer him bread. In the book of Luke, the gospel writer concludes the story by saying the devil left Jesus ‘until an opportune time,’” Rambo said. “We should ask ourselves, when are we most susceptible? And anticipate how to be aware of those situations, because how you react to them shows what’s really in your heart.”
The context of the original Lent is also striking to Rambo, because it comes immediately after Jesus’s baptism in the third chapter of Matthew. As soon as Jesus comes out of the Jordan’s water, the heavens open and God says, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
“And then immediately the holy spirit calls him into the wild,” Rambo said. “That legitimizes the fact that even Christ’s closest followers are going to have desert moments. Jesus’s example for us, is that he doesn’t know where to go, he leans in to the Father.”