Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Psalm 51) transports me to Rio de Janeiro, where preparations have been made for the world-renown Carnival week, which begins there (and in New Orleans and around the world) tomorrow and culminates on Fat Tuesday, the eve of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. The whole concept of Carnival, which we think of now in terms of colorful parades and masquerades and dancing, is one of those incredibly rich mixtures of sacred and secular, of holy asceticism and profane consumption. Historically, the week of Carnival comes during the church season of Septuagesima, which involves three weeks of intense preparation for Lent. It is a time in many church traditions around the world where the singing of Alleluia is literally laid to rest, not to be heard again until Easter Sunday. In French churches they would construct a coffin for the Alleluia, and would bury it; in other places it was burned in effigy. In the service called Deposito of the Alleluia, Christians would sing: We do not now deserve to sing the Alleluia forever; Guilt forces us to dismiss you, O Alleluia. For the time approaches in which we must weep for our sins.
Carnival, which is the last week of Septuagesima, the last week before Lent, historically was a time to incrementally begin fasting, to say farewell to meat. Hence the name, carnival, which literally means away with the carne, the meat. Taken more broadly, it was a time to put away the things of the flesh. And yet, throughout time, the season morphed into what we see now in Rio and in New Orleans, a week to lavishly celebrate carnal sensuality with samba school dancing and feasting on fat foods, to mask our fears and publicly parade the flesh in the most outlandish and raucous of ways. Prayer beads give way to other kinds of beads, and while the praises might be buried, the parties come to life.
The Psalmist David was in many ways the poster child of Carnival in all its complexity and history. His life is the ultimate mixture of profane consumption and holy asceticism. He writes here in a period of his life when the praise songs have been buried, when guilt has forced him to dismiss the alleluias precisely because he has indulged the flesh in excessive ways and is paying the price for it. He weeps over his sins; he has engaged in promiscuous sex and gratuitous violence on a grand scale. When he considers what he has to do in preparation for a renewal of the spirit – a resurrection of soul – he knows that parading sacrifices of burnt flesh before God is not what is required. Instead, he is offering a sacrifice of spirit. He removes the mask and reveals a broken heart. He pleads for purity to replace prurience. His penitent poem of forgiveness reminds us how we all live in this strange world of inter-connected flesh and spirit, how we are all, in the words of a more contemporary psalmist, Leon Russell, searching but not finding understanding anyway, we’re lost in a masquerade. May we, like all the good psalmists, find the poetry and the prayers that will lead us in parade fashion out of this lost space and back into the good graces of a Creator who granted humanity both body and soul, flesh and spirit, carne and cardiaque.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Forgiveness.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.