A buddy of mine in high school once gave up drinking Coke for Lent. He was a big fan of the drink and I knew he would be frequently led into temptation during the 40 Lenten days. I witnessed many occasions when he could have given in, but he stood firm. But then on the Thursday before Easter, only three days from the finish line, he was sitting at a soda fountain and inexplicably ordered a Coke. “Why?” I asked, since he had resisted for so long. He wasn’t sure, he just wanted a Coke.
That minor victory for Satan certainly deserved forgiveness, or at least an end zone seat in heaven.
Penance is a topic that is seldom spoken about these days, especially during a year when practically the whole world, regardless of religion or the lack of it, feels like it has sacrificed normal life to an invisible presence. Having to get two vaccination shots is, we assume, passable for a penance, and also wearing those damn face masks.
In New Orleans, Lenten penance is more pronounced than in most places because we have an all-out festival preceding Ash Wednesday. The original idea was to have an opulent season of celebrating before the Lenten season of sacrifice. Mardi Gras’ theological mission is to encourage feasting before fasting. We have become masters of the feasting part.
We also have the sea on our side. For Catholics, meatless days are often fulfilled with seafood. This year local churches have made an effort to help with the penance by promoting Friday fish fries. There are some issues, however, worthy of jurisprudence if not Papal intervention. One of the big questions through the ages has been how to classify turtle meat—as found in the soup of that name. Generally, the church has ruled that turtle does not count as meat since it is a reptile and that is closer to being seafood than land-based.
Then there is the question about duck, especially in a state that calls itself the “Sportsman’s Paradise.” I have to confess that I am baffled on this issue. There was once a Louisiana bishop who ruled that duck was not a meat since it a waterfowl. However, the consensus tends to compare duck to chicken and it just does not seem fair, especially to chickens, to call one meat and the other not. My suggestion is to skip the duck on meatless days and order instead alligator, which is also not considered to be meat although actually eating it seems like more of a penance.
Occasional penance of some sort, as long as it is sane, is probably a good idea for most people. It is not a religious issue as much as it is about mental discipline. Those of us blessed to live in the ultimate land of plenty should be tested by occasional sacrifices in our lives.
Penances are ok, but priority should be given to performing good works. Being charitable can even last more than 40 days.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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