Today I shall explain the Mardi Gras to Lent to Easter timeline, along with some backstory but not so much to where you start thinking this is, like, school or something.
But heads up, kids—this may be a reverent topic, but I curse a little.
Here’s how you start with Mardi Gras—
—a decadent, costumed feast and blowout that includes drinking and parades and glitter and robes and beads and shiny crowns and drag queens—and end up a month and a half later with a you-gave-up-booze-for-40-days-so-now-you-can-wear-your-white-shoes-again church service called Easter.
And here’s what Lent has to do with it all.
First things first—we party
So you probably know that Ash Wednesday marks the day Jesus set out for the desert and then spent forty days in the blazing sun trying to get the devil, who had followed him out there, off his back.
The day before Ash Wednesday is called either Shrove Tuesday (also known as pancake night to many churchgoers) or Mardi Gras (which is nothing more than French for “fat Tuesday”) or Carnival (“farewell to flesh” in old-timey Latin).
People party excessively the day—or several days—before Ash Wednesday because there’s about to be a fairly dry spell coming up where you have to say I’m sorry a lot until Jesus and the Easter Bunny show up a month and a half later.
This draggy period of time is known as Lent.
Here’s how they get forty days out of what feels way longer:
The “forty days” from Ash Wednesday to Easter is actually six weeks: 7 days x 6 weeks = 42 days.
Then they add the four days starting with Ash Wednesday until the first Sunday of Lent: 42 + 4 = 46.
But they don’t include the six Sundays, so voilà: 46 – 6 = 40 days.
Fun fact: The Sundays are designated as feast days so you can relax a little on whatever you gave up for Lent and thereby refrain from committing a crime due to the stress of the abstinence.
Hangover or not, things are about to get serious
Ash Wednesday ushers in Lent, with church services where the priest or whoever’s in charge dips their thumb in a little pot of ashes and makes a little cross—which usually just looks like a smudge—on your forehead with the ashes while saying, pretty much like in the 70s song by Kansas, “From dust you’ve come and to dust you shall return.”
This is designed to humble your ass and give you something to think about for these next forty days.
Lent is when people give up things like cursing and drinking and Thin Mints in order to show solidarity with Jesus having to put up with the world’s original asshole, formally known as Satan, bugging the crap out of him while he was just trying to get some peace and quiet away from his busy life as the Messiah.
The forty days in the desert had Jesus rolling his eyes at the devil and saying things like, “Man shalt not live by bread alone” and “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God,” because the devil was trying to get Jesus to switch teams by offering him mansions and a billion dollars and stuff, and taunting him about being the Son of God, hoping that finally, Jesus would see what fun he could be having instead of that stressful job of being the Messiah, and would red rover, red rover on over to the dark side.
Eventually though, just like in The Devil Went Down to Georgia, Satan lost and went back home to Hell.
It was like a working vacation out there for Jesus
After a few weeks, Jesus put down his prize-winning fiddle and got on a donkey, sometimes referred to as an ass, which he rode into town for a little one-man parade while people waved palms over his head and made a big commotion about him being the King of the Jews. The Jews had been waiting a long time for the Messiah, so they had a fair amount of emotion invested in this guy.
This is what we now call Palm Sunday.
But it turned out to be a bad week since the good ol’ boys were fairly well threatened by Jesus going around claiming to be the Messiah that the prophets had been predicting for hundreds of years. They were banking on someone who was fancier, flashier, and fit into their system better.
But Jesus had amassed a lot of groupies by bucking the system something fierce—he went around calling out the good ol’ boys on their greedy, power-hungry ways, and hanging out with poor folks and ordinary folks. And women, of all people.
The good ol’ boys had reached their limit, so they put a price on Jesus’ head.
Really, really tough week ahead
This next week went downhill fast. And because Easter if full of irony, we now call this Holy Week.
Jesus became a wanted man, so now he and his buddies, the twelve disciples, had to sneak around.
On Thursday, they snuck upstairs in someone’s house for dinner, which is now called the Last Supper (and I bet looked just like the Da Vinci painting), and which some churches call Maundy Thursday, where Jesus and the guys got together with a loaf of bread and some wine.
Or grape juice, depending on which church you go to.
This is when Jesus started the “body and blood” thing since he pretty much knew what was about to happen and wanted something for people to remember him by.
It was on this night that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, something that servants did for important people back then because people wore sandals everywhere and their feet got plenty dirty. The disciples told Jesus that he shouldn’t be washing their feet but that it should be the other way around.
This was when the now-popular “leader as servant” trend began.
This is also the night when Jesus said that one of his twelve friends would betray him, casting a pall over the night, which was already going nowhere fast because the disciples couldn’t see the big picture in all of this, even though Jesus had spelled it out for them time and time again.
Sure enough, Judas, probably exactly as seen in the all the movie versions of the story, received a handful of cash from the cops and in turn, conveniently had Jesus right there with him and handed him over.
Then things went from bad to worse
By Friday, the cops were beating Jesus up and rolling dice to divvy up his clothes.
They then dragged him out of the back room and stood him in front of a huge crowd while the bossman, Pontius Pilate, tried to figure out what to do with him, because it seemed to Pontius Pilate that while Jesus may be a little nuts, he was not an actual criminal.
But the crowd got in an unreasonable frenzy (because crowds do that), and they yelled for Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus, which is what they did back then for the death penalty. Pontius Pilate didn’t feel right about it so he said he’d washed his hands of the whole thing.
But even so, the crowd was in that frenzy and Pontius Pilate figured he was at their mercy.
Jesus had to carry his own cross—which is why we sometimes say we have a cross to bear—to the “Place of the Skull” where they did all the death sentences in that town.
It was a grueling walk, and Jesus fell a couple of times from already having been beaten down pretty bad. His mom and his women friends, possibly even the lovely Mary Magdalene, gave him water and helped him along as best they could.
Talk about depressing
Then Jesus was taken away from his mother and his friends and thrown down onto the cross while the guys in charge nailed him to it and then hoisted it up. They must have put a pretty good-sized hole in the ground with a post hole digger in order to make this work.
It was apparently a slow and awful process to die on a cross, and by this point Jesus was pretty disappointed in God and said so out loud. The King James version of the Bible goes like this: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” but, just like when he was talking to the devil, Jesus (probably) spoke in his own language, not seventeenth century English.
Jesus’ mom and friends were all around him, and the women were crying and wailing. At around 3 pm Jesus died, and it was said that the sky went black, and the curtain at the altar in the town church tore itself in two.
This was a sign that Jesus had rocked the world.
At some point, Judas realized that things had all gone terribly wrong and he went and hung himself.
This day, oddly, is known as Good Friday.
It was beginning to look like they’d bet on the wrong guy
The women took Jesus’ body and wrapped it up like a mummy and put all kinds of oils on it, which is what they did to bodies then, and which some people say was why the Wise Men gave Jesus weird baby gifts like frankincense and myrrh—sort of a premonition they had.
The body was taken to a tomb which was then closed off with a boulder and had guards in front of it to make sure that Jesus’ fan club wouldn’t come and steal the body and then brag that Jesus had risen from the dead like he kept saying he would.
The next day, Saturday, which is now called Holy Saturday, was a really hard day for Jesus’ peeps.
Nothing had worked out the way they thought it would.
Everything was ruined.
They were super depressed about it all.
They prayed all day and all night, which church people now do all night long on Holy Saturday and call it the Great Easter Vigil.
The next day when the women showed up at the tomb to tend to Jesus’ body, the guards were gone, the boulder had been rolled away, and Jesus’ body was also gone.
On second thought…
Then an angel came—of course, because that’s what kind of story this is—and told the women that Jesus wasn’t there, which they could plainly see, and that he had indeed risen from the dead.
So the women were excited and went to get the guys to tell them what had happened.
On the way, someone came out of nowhere and started walking along with them, asking them what was up. They were jazzed up from finding the tomb empty, and were talking to this guy about it and told him the whole story before they realized it was Jesus himself walking with them.
This was the first of a series of surprise appearances Jesus would make over the next few weeks.
Bringing it home
Jesus not dying after all happened on the day we call Easter, which conveniently for us, could possibly have occurred on a Sunday.
And what a lil’ ol’ bunny has to do with all this, is that Easter has been linked up with the arrival of spring, and the people back then were really into the seasons changing and celebrated spring with things like eggs and bunnies and other symbols of fertility (bunnies… get it??), which was a big deal then.
So new birth, as in spring flowers and baby bunnies and eggs turning into little baby chickens, tied in very nicely with the resurrection theme that Jesus popularized when he rose from the dead and started Easter.
So voilà, I give you the Easter Bunny.
So which is better—Easter or Christmas?
See, Easter is the biggest thing in the church year because of Jesus whooping up on the devil and rising from the dead and all. Obviously this is big.
But as we all know, Christmas gets more press and has better shopping. But in Easter’s defense, Easter does include a lot of chocolate and usually a ham.
And by golly, there’s something to be said for chocolates and a ham.
And for getting to wear white again.
And for Easter Bunnies and springtime and new life.
And for Jesus rising from the dead, of course—because that’s some epic shit right there.