Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Begining Lent with a Hot Cup of Coffee

Some time in the late 1500s coffee was introduced into Europe from Arabia. Since this beverage was so closely associated with the Muslim “infidels” in whose land the coffee bean was first cultivated, many Christians wished to ban coffee from the continent as the drink of the devil. To settle the matter the issue was brought before Pope Clement VIII, who refused to issue a ban until he had first sampled some of the brew himself. Upon taking a drink he is reported to have said, “This Satan's drink is delicious...it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it.” And so from that moment on Catholics were free to partake of coffee…and the rest is history.

This Lent I am giving up coffee as my personal sacrifice these forty days. Not that coffee is a bad thing - as Pope Clement announced centuries ago, coffee has been officially “baptized” (according to the legendary tale above), and so we need not avoid the drink as a matter of moral living. Catholics are allowed to enjoy the pleasures of this life and indulge in some of the finer things such as coffee or chocolates or whatever luxury suits your taste. It is not that we must give up something “bad” for Lent (like smoking or excessive drinking – although these are certainly good things to give up all year long), rather we give up something that is good and pleasurable (like coffee and chocolates) so that we can free ourselves from the pleasures of this life and so we are not enslaved by our physical/earthly desires.

This Tuesday – which was Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday” – our family indulged in a large dinner that included favorite foods in large quantities. We finished it off with candy for the kids, which was a special treat since we are removing all candy during Lent. And we stayed up late doing nothing but sitting around being lazy. It was our own Mardi Gras celebration.

I used to dislike Mardi Gras. I thought it was an overindulgence that crossed over into outright sin and gluttony, and mocked the true meaning of Lent and Ash Wednesday. Sadly, many secular celebrations of this Tuesday are just that – a mockery of everything for which Catholicism stands. Yet I now see that it is possible to salvage something pure from this cultural wreckage. That is, if we remember the words of Clement VIII about his coffee. “It would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it.”

I had one last cup of coffee yesterday afternoon before feasting with my family…not because I wanted to see how much “sinning” I could do before the pious days of Lent, but rather to indulge in the goodness of God’s bounty before cutting myself off from earthly desires. My family’s Mardi Gras celebration was anything but sinful – it included a ceremonial burning of blessed palms from last year to make our own ashes – but it was fun, and there is no sin in that.

Lent can be more sacred if we use Mardi Gras and the days leading up to Ash Wednesday to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” The sacrifice becomes even starker after our joyous celebration, as we don our ashes and remember that we are dust.

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