Around the middle of the 16th century, Pieter Breughel, the Flemish painter renowned for his portrayal of medieval life, produced a painting called, The Fight between Carnival and Lent. Like many of his works the painting not only captures much of the everyday experience of medieval life in Northern Europe, but is also filled with symbolism and commentary on events and circumstances occurring in his world. This painting portrays a tension of sorts between Protestants and Catholics over how best to reflect a meaningful spiritual life. The centre of the town is filled with all kinds of people engaged in work and play, and around the edges two groups seem to be competing in a strange jousting contest. On one side of the painting are a group of people, eating, drinking, gambling and generally engaging in licentious activity. They are led by a jolly man astride a beer barrel. The opposing side, are emerging from the church and are led by a painfully thin, witch-like nun holding a bread shovel on which are a couple of dried fish. She is followed by a host of penitents-nuns, monks, townsfolk of all social levels as well as civic leaders all somewhat mournful and downcast.
One interpretation of the painting is that it highlights a particular theological battle that was going on in Breughel's time. It was in the early days of the Reformation and the battle lines between Protestants and Catholics were being drawn quite harshly. The conventional wisdom was that the Protestants cared little for penitence and so celebrated Carnival and all its permitted excess, while Catholics chose the other way and opted for the ascetic avenue of lent to express their devotion and loyalty. To all this Breughel offers a visual response. in the very centre of the painting we see a couple walking away. The man has a sort of hunchback and many say that this is a symbol of Egotism, which was traditionally represented by a person with a hunchback or carrying a sack. It's meaning was to express man's own faults and weaknesses. It is often read as representative of the way people cause intolerance towards dissenters because of their inability to think objectively. The woman with him has an unlit lantern hanging by her belt and she is being led by a fool. By a fool and not by reason. The torch the fool carries is symbolic of dispute and destruction. Close to the trio is a rooting pig, often a symbol connected to destruction and damage. All this division, Breughel seems to say, is folly. Everyone is a fool in this battle.
In contemporary Christianity, Carnival doesn't get much of a look-in, in fact it is largely regarded as a mostly secular opportunity to dress wild and go crazy in the streets. But Carnivale in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans have little connection to religious life and practice for most people, particularly for those in the Protestant church.
If there was a fight between Carnival and Lent today, Lent would win hands down. Everywhere you turn, if you pay attention to the religious landscape, Lent is on the radar. Lenten practices, ashes-to-go outside public eateries, all kinds of alternative study groups. And nobody is talking about Carnival. Nobody. Oh sure, there is an occasional Shrove Tuesday nod to pancakes, but no embrace of that liminal space where all bets are off and decadence and license run free. I think its as much of a problem as it was in Breughel's time, the only difference now being that everyone is on the same side. The lenten dynamic is penitential, reflective and internal, worthy aims perhaps, but if they are not tempered by an embrace of the other wilder and external elements of life, I think we lose something.
Perhaps it's that Lent requires less effort. It's easily adapted to forms of faith that have become increasingly personalized and internal over the past centuries, and lots of people are looking for rituals around which they can order their lives. We also talk a lot about 'what we are giving up for Lent,' something that was never meant to be an act of purely personal self-sacrifice, it's become a sort of religious version of a New Years resolution.
Now I'm not saying that Lent shouldn't be observed if that is what someone wants to do, I just think that on some levels it continues to affirm the very religion a lot of people say they no longer want to deal with, one that is rooted in asceticism. Lent developed into a form of piety characterized by an emphasis on penance, by an interest in the cult of the martyrs, and by a concern to hold on to the vestiges of a powerful past that had all but passed away. The Church reacted to the problems of the age by advocating an ascetic approach to life, a life of withdrawal.
I know that for many people it has simply become an opportunity to take some time, to enact a kind of intense focus on a particular thing, or to study something they haven't found time for, and again I take no issue with the observance of Lent or using the period to follow a lead that interests. I just think that something is being lost in this one-sided equation and that a little less internalization and a bit more wild living might not be a bad idea.