Today is Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the day to eat up all the goodies you won’t be allowed to have during Lent.

An artist friend of mine was troubled by Lent. She didn’t think it was healthy to spend all that time thinking about your faults. But this is not a random guilt-fest. This is a period of forty days (to remind us of Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness) for self-examination, followed by a joyful celebration. I think this particular woman fretted about her shortcomings throughout the year. How much healthier to have a limited time of self-examination set aside.

Nor is it self-loathing. People who make themselves miserable by obsessing about their flaws are generally thinking about how different they are from Cameron Diaz or the cool guy in the frat, not how different they are from Jesus. There is no spiritual benefit there.

Lent is traditionally a time for self-examination, a time to consider how we ought to improve our behavior. But there any many other things  to contemplate as well. Many people contemplate the sufferings of Christ, particular teachings of the church, or injustices in the world which we might alleviate. I have used Lenten guides focussing on Handel’s Messiah, the teachings of St. Francis, and voluntary simplicity. The churches I have been visiting are studying the Lord’s Prayer, sexual fidelity, and the nature of God.

“Giving something up for Lent” is the familiar sign of  the season. If you are Catholic, you have a list of things provided to you. Mainstream Protestants usually give up or take up some particular thing, as an individual choice. The Empress and I were talking about this yesterday, and we agreed that a well-chosen Lenten discipline can change your life. The Lenten disciplines are not to punish you or make you suffer, but to help you pay attention. It is hard, in the course of our busy lives, to remember to contemplate anything. If you give up caffeine, then every time during Lent that you start toward the coffee pot, wish for a cup of tea, or see someone else with a Coke, it is a reminder to pay attention to the things you have chosen to think about.

A Baptist said that he though Lent was a second chance at New Year’s resolutions, but that is not the point. Sometimes we give up things we believe we would be better off without, such as caffeine or criticizing others or sugar, in hopes that we will be able to continue to do without them after Lent. Sometimes we give up something we will joyfully return to at Easter, but which we will miss enough to make it a useful reminder to us. Sometimes we take things up. It is traditional to give more to charity during Lent. You might knit just for charity for those 40 days, or give up meat and donate the money thus saved to a soup kitchen.

As for Mardi Gras, it is a major celebration down here. Some people have been celebrating since Epiphany. Son-in-Law says that it is not observed at all in the Frozen North, but #2 son made a Galette des Rois for French class, and they are having a party. Then there is a parade downtown. The church is having a pancake supper. There is usually a Dixieland jazz band and a pancake race — it was a favorite celebration when the kids were small, but my boys probably will refuse to go at all. Sigh. Tomorrow we will have ashes on our foreheads and begin the serious contemplative season of Lent. For today, laissez les bon temps rouler!