Addressing the bishops of Switzerland last month, Pope Benedict
XVI recalled a remark by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche –
that man can celebrate only if God does not exist. “That is absurd,” was the Pope’s response. The exact opposite is true, Benedict explained: “It’s only if God exists and touches us that there can be true festive celebration. And we know that these feasts of faith open people’s hearts wide.
those who scoff at faith and heckle Christianity, Pope Benedict’s words
will no doubt seem a shade out of touch, unrealistically hopeful, and
not a little pietistic. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
Many today have no idea that the “feast” and the “festival,” with its
correlating jubilant celebrations, are distinctly products of a
Catholic culture. The case could even be made that merrymaking in the
way of wine and beer drinking owes its origin to the Catholic monks who
worked the land in Medieval Europe. They made wine. They brewed beer.
Even in their ascetic lives, they made merry – at the times of year
that were purposefully designated as times for merrymaking.
(merrymaking, partying – call it what you will) is an important part of
Catholic life and rather unique in the scheme of world religions. You
won’t find Muslim or Calvinist writers penning odes to wine, or
spinning yarns about beer drinking. Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc gave
us, for example, his “Heroic poem in praise of wine”:
To exalt, enthrone, establish and defend,
To welcome home mankind's mysterious friend
Wine, true begetter of all arts that be;
Wine, privilege of the completely free;
Wine the recorder; wine the sagely strong;
Wine, bright avenger of sly-dealing wrong,
Awake, Ausonian Muse, and sing the vineyard song!
By thee do seers the inward light discern;
By thee the statue lives, the Gods return.
When the ephemeral vision's lure is past
All, all, must face their Passion at the last.
So touch my dying lip: so bridge that deep:
So pledge my waking from the gift of sleep,
And, sacramental, raise me the Divine:
Strong brother in God and last companion, Wine.
the great English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton (who famously said:
‘No animal ever invented anything as bad as drunkenness – or so good as
drink.”) feasting meant beer and thick steaks
followed by a good cigar. But, partying is much more than letting the
spirits flow. It’s also the pursuit of an authentically “good time” –
as suggested by the famous Cajun saying that pervades French-Catholic
Louisiana, Laissez les bon temps rouler. “Let the good times roll.”
a group of tradition-minded Catholics at Cornell University, calling
itself “the Society for a Good Time,” that well bears this sentiment in
mind. These Catholic Ivy-leaguers explain their raison d’etre
this way: “We study to eschew anything which causes sadness, that is,
anything which is contrary to the will of God.” Obviously, their
version of beer-swilling doesn’t include the usual college carousing
routine with its drunk and disorderly feast of fools – a perversion, of
course, of authentic feasting. Rather, part of the mission of these
good-timers is to promote the living Tradition of the Catholic Church –
and that’s certainly something to celebrate.
importantly, the Church gives us the liturgical calendar with its
different classes of ecclesiastical feasts – all of which relate back
to the ultimate celebration: the Holy Eucharist. Each feast not only
commemorates an event or person, but also serves to excite the
spiritual life by reminding us of the sacred event it commemorates. The
liturgical calendar even includes a whole festival season, centered on
the Resurrection of Christ. (It’s called Easter, by the way.)
might seem incongruous to dwell on the subject of “partying” at the
beginning of the Lenten season. Yet without the type of fasting that is
observed during Lent, Catholic feasting risks becoming self-indulgent
and, even, mundane – and, unfortunately, there’s no shortage of mundane
self-indulgent partying in our society. This sort of “celebration
without meaning” exists even amongst Catholics.
Lenten fast, in many ways, prepares the partier to celebrate. Without
the preparation of penance, prayer and almsgiving, it is near
impossible to appreciate and celebrate the great feast of Easter in any
meaningful way. And that’s exactly what’s missing with the revelers who
partake in the paganized burlesque that has long perverted, Mardi Gras
and Carnivale celebrations at Shrovetide. First, the revelers put the
cart before the horse – as if their sole intention is to debauch
themselves in as many ways as is humanly possible before the curtain of
Lent draws a veil over their excesses. The end result of the typical
street Carnivale feast is vomiting – little more. For many of these
revelers, Lent never comes. Consequently, Easter never comes either.
is instructive to note too that these un-Christian celebrations that
use religion as a pretense for self-indulgence are not a product of
modern civilization. They are ancient – and, brace yourself, also a
product of a thoroughly Catholic society. In fact, during the sixteenth
century in Italy a special form of the Forty Hours Prayer was
instituted on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, partly to
draw people away from the popular bacchanalia celebrations (the type
one can now witness in Brazil and New Orleans every Mardi Gras), and
partly to make expiation for the excesses committed by the pre-Lenten
revelers. Likewise, in 1747, Benedict XIV granted a plenary indulgence
to those who took part in the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament which
was to be carried out daily for three days preceding Lent.
debauchery and excess are, of course, as old as the hills, a part of
man’s fallen human nature. That’s partly what makes the season of Lent
so important. As Pope Benedict XVI explained in his Ash Wednesday
homily this year, the 40 days leading up to Easter should be a time to
revive the “friendship with God that was lost through sin.” He reminded
us that the Church offers the same ascetic instruments that have proven
effective through the centuries: prayer, penance, and almsgiving. It’s
worth repeating. This revival needs to be done, year after year, no
matter who you are or what your state of life.
celebration of Easter is so important in the life of the Church that it
takes this full forty days of preparation. If we don’t properly
prepare, we risk missing Easter – and the Resurrection of Christ risks
becoming a mundane Spring festival about eggs and tulips.
is interesting to note that Nietzsche – an anti-Christian atheist –
wasn’t exactly known for his partying or celebration on any level.
Rather, he was a deeply depressed genius, who ultimately suffered a
mental collapse and spent the last years of his life in an insane
asylum. If we’re going to take advice from any German intellectual, let
it be Joseph Ratzinger rather than Freidrich Nietzsche.