And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the LORD is your strength!”
Today is Mardi Gras. Many of us associate Mardi Gras with lavish and lascivious celebrations in places such as New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. Not the sort of thing you’d expect to show up in daily reflections on the Bible!
But, in fact, Scripture encourages us to set aside special times for celebration, even doing that which is at the core of Mardi Gras. No, no, I’m not suggesting that there is any biblical warrant for the excesses of many Mardi Gras festivals, which look rather like what happened in Exodus 32 when the Israelites worshiped the golden calf. But the phrase “Mardi Gras” is French for “Fat Tuesday.” The name is derived from the classic Christian practice of eating fatty food on the Tuesday before Lent, in preparation for the Lenten fast from rich, sweet cuisine. (Some people actually refer to Mardi Gras as Pancake Tuesday because of their tradition of eating pancakes on the day before Lent. I was not raised in this tradition, but as a pancake lover, I rather like it.)
Is it ever appropriate for God’s people to enjoy lavish celebrations with rich food? Or are we always to live in frugality and self-denial? Nehemiah 8 provides a surprising answer.
The chapter begins after the wall in Jerusalem had been rebuilt, thus guaranteeing the safety and flourishing of the city. The people gathered together in order to celebrate what they had accomplished by God’s power. On that day, Ezra the scribe stood on a tall platform so that he might read the Jewish law to all who had gathered. As he read, learned Levites helped the people understand the meaning of the text . . . an early example of small-group Bible study. When the people heard the law and grasped its meaning, they were struck to the heart and began to weep.
But then their leaders did a most surprising thing. They urged the people to stop crying and start partying! Nehemiah told the people to “[g]o and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the LORD is your strength!” (8:10). The Hebrew phrase translated here as “celebrate with a feast of rich foods” literally reads, “eat the fat” (’ikhlu mashmannim). Nehemiah was, in a sense, urging the people to have a “Fat Tuesday” celebration.
Of course God’s people should also set aside time for repentance and self-denial. We see an example of this in the last verse of Nehemiah 8, as well as in the whole of Nehemiah 9. It would be wrong to conclude from Nehemiah 8:10 that godly life should always be a party. But there is a time to celebrate, to enjoy the good things of life, even pancakes and other rich foods. (Of course some of us need to be careful with this for the sake of our physical health.)
Notice that the celebration in Nehemiah 8 took into account those “who have nothing prepared” (8:10). The people who were blessed with the resources to throw a big party were to share with those who lacked such resources. As God’s people, we are always called to be generous with the poor, even and especially in our celebrations.
Notice also the rationale for the party: “This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (8:10). In my tradition, holiness is usually associated with somberness and seriousness. This isn’t wrong, but it can lead to a lack of balance in our experience of God. Sometimes on a sacred day, it is absolutely right to celebrate and to experience the joy of the Lord.
Nehemiah 8, therefore, stands as a corrective to two opposing views of life that battle our allegiance. On the one hand, some would argue that the only way to enjoy life is to live excessively, engaging in behavior that is beyond the parameters of decency, not to mention God’s Word. Others, by contrast, would contend that godly living always demands austerity and solemnity. In fact, the Bible reveals that God created the good things in this life to be enjoyed . . . within limits. There is a time to “eat the fat” in celebration even as there is a time to fast in repentance, and plenty of times in between.
So if you’re going to eat pancakes today, or some other equivalent delicacy, enjoy your feast because this day is holy to the Lord. Celebrate his goodness with delight because the joy of the Lord is your strength!
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Were you raised with any Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday) traditions? What were they? Do you associate celebration with holiness? Why or why not?
PRAYER: Thank you, gracious God, for the goodness of your creation. Thank you for tasty foods and delicious drinks. Thank you for occasions of celebration. And thank you for pancakes!
Lord, help me to know when it’s time to celebrate, and when it’s time to be solemn. Teach me how to enjoy good times with you and your people. Keep me from excess that dishonors you and misuses your good gifts.
Remind me, Lord, to share my celebrations with others. May I never get so wrapped up in my enjoyment of life that I forget the poor or neglect your call to care for them.
O Lord, may your joy be my strength! In your name I pray, Amen.