Recently I read Benedict XVI’s Last Testament (which is wonderful). He talks a lot about his childhood. He mentions that he was born on Holy Saturday, and how that must have shaped the course of his life. As I was reading it, I got the haunting sense that Lent just might have started the week I was born. I looked it up, and sure enough, I was born on Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras is the culmination of Carnival, the feasting between Epiphany and Lent; it is the last day of eating rich, fatty food before the great ritual fasting begins. So what does it mean to be born that day; does it play a role in my life? I don’t actually think the day of my birth shapes my destiny, but it interesting to reflect upon. I certainly have a predilection for fatty food; if I had been born 15 minutes later, would I fast more?
But Mardi Gras isn’t just about indulgence; it’s about preparation, clearing out the cabinets for the fast to come. It’s digging dig into the present, because the future is coming, whether you want it to or not. Birthdays often make people think of the passing of time, how quickly it all flies by. A birthday is an annual reminder to make the present count; the future is on its way no matter what.
Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, is on the precipice of a deeply spiritual time. The word “shrove” means “absolve.” In old England, during the week before Lent started, people would go to confession and “be shriven.” Stomachs and souls would prepare for the Lenten season.
In German Switzerland and Alsace, Mardi Gras was called Fastnacht (Fasting Night), Veilchendienstag (Violet Tuesday), or Schmotziger Donnerstag (Greasy Tuesday). The carnivals would include characters such as jesters, witches, animals, and local legends. It was a mix of feasting and storytelling, marking the dramatic difference between feast and fast, the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom, sin and redemption.
So perhaps I was born at a precipice, stuck somewhere between places and meanings. I use storytelling to explain the spiritual realities raging around me. I stay distracted in the present but acutely aware that the future is looming, that preparation is needed, that change is coming, a change that will be painful but ultimately good.
Furthermore, I was baptized on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Of course, my Presbyterian church and family didn’t know that at the time. Still, my entry into the Christian faith was on a very Catholic holiday. I now attend a church in the name of the Sacred Heart. Did the date of my baptism play a role in my faith journey? When I joined the Church, I had friends tell me that it made sense, that I always seemed suited for Catholicism. Was I marked for the Church?
The Feast of the Sacred Heart was first celebrated in 1670. It became universal in the Church in 1856. Although relatively new in the Church, the devotion is rooted in medieval mysticism. Devotion of the Sacred Heart focuses on Christ’s love, compassion, and continued suffering for humanity, as demonstration by his heart aflame, pierced by lances, and crowned in thorns. St. Bonaventure said, “Who is there who would not love this wounded heart? Who would not love in return Him, who loves so much?” While I wouldn’t call myself mystical, I have always been interested by such things. And I do have a recent soft spot for the seventeenth century.
I’ll end this with some of the promises Christ gave Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque (who had the vision of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) in hopes that by nature of the date of my rebirth, they will come to have significant meaning for me.
1. I will give them all the graces necessary for their state of life.
3. I will console them in all their troubles.
4. I will be their refuge in life and especially in death.
5. I will abundantly bless all their undertakings.
7. Tepid souls shall become fervent.
8. Fervent souls shall rise speedily to great perfection.
[Incidentally, Holy Saturday on my birth year fell on March 25, the date mostly commonly associated with Easter, the conception of Christ, and the creation of the world.]