Celebrating the Flesh
It’s Mardi Gras. Carnival. The days of embodied celebration before Lent. And beyond a few announcements of church pancake suppers tonight, I’ve heard not a word about either from within the church world this year. Oh, I’ve heard people in professional ministry talk (complain really) about planning their Lenten observances for weeks, but as far as I can tell the period between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday is not a time of celebration but merely a prep period for Lent.
Mardi Gras and Carnival are the embarrassing uncle of the church year. The one’s we don’t like to talk about. Those strange grafted-on “pagan” celebrations that root us firmly in this world and don’t let us pretend that we truly are just souls having a temporary bodily experience. In the Western church, it’s fine to focus on ways we can deny our bodies for the sake of spirituality during Lent, but the mere mention of celebrating bodies is suspect. A fest of the flesh just reeks too much of sin to be embraced. Sex and bodies must always be seen as corrupt and evil, not places of joy or truth. And so the age old dualism that separates mind and body remains.
Even those who call for liberation from structures that oppress get uncomfortable when the bodies they advocate freedom for do, well, bodily things. I recently read this great quote from Marcella Althaus-Reid on the ways feminist and liberation theologians still adhere to this view that incarnate flesh is sinful –
If the shanty townspeople go in procession carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary and demanding jobs, they seem to become God’s option for the poor. However, when the same shanty townspeople mount a carnival centered on a transvestite Christ accompanied by a Drag Queen Mary Magdalene kissing his wounds, singing songs of political criticism, they are not anymore God’s option for the poor. Carnivals in Latin America are the Christmas of the indecent, and yet they are invisible in theological discourse.
Catherine Keller refers to this as our fear of incarnate or incarnal love. Love and religious practice have become disconnected from the body except for the habit of denying the body. We have lost the ability to celebrate and express joy in our body and not feel guilty about it. Mardi gras and Carnival are reminders that some have not lost that gift and bought into our Western dualistic disparagement of the body. Perhaps it is time to stop rushing past them or ignoring them in shame and embrace the wholistic worship that we are so desperately lacking in the Western church.