December 10, 2023

Relocations: 40 days of renunciation and reflection

Herbert Rothschild
March 18, 2022

But first, the Carnival

By Herbert Rothschild

We’re now in the season of Lent. Depending on your experience, this may mean much or nothing to you. Although a Jew, I grew up in a Catholic culture. When the rest of the country thinks of New Orleans, it thinks of Carnival. For natives, though, Carnival is inextricably bound to Lent. A season of intoxicating transgression is followed by 40 days of self-discipline.

On the day after Mardi Gras, as yesterday’s revelers kneel before the priest and receive the sign of the cross traced in ashes on their foreheads, they hear the sobering admonition, “Remember thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

Many denominations that arose during the Protestant Reformation decried in the name of godliness this psychic polarity. The preacher in Ecclesiastes might respond, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Mick Jagger spoke more directly to this point: “It’s all right to let yourself go as long as you can get yourself back.”

What are the self-disciplines of Lent? In the pre-Vatican II church of my youth, the salient one was fasting. The rules weren’t onerous: no meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, the combined size of the first two meals no greater than the third, and no eating in between. In other and earlier times, meat was prohibited throughout Lent. Hence the word “carnivale.”

Like so much in the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, Lenten observance emphasized rules of conduct rather than self-directed spirituality. Yet, the dilution of fasting rules strikes me as a mistake. I believe in the beneficial force of law. Left to our own guidance, too often we give ourselves a pass. Perhaps the most telling hallmark of our national culture is its material self-indulgence, and the most obvious manifestations of our self-indulgence are eating disorders and an appalling waste of food that cut across all demographic lines.

Fasting need not be only about self-discipline. It also can be a prompt for mindfulness. To experience hunger even a few hours is to sympathize with our sisters and brothers for whom hunger is an unrelenting condition. Millions of them live in Afghanistan, a nation devastated by our invasion and the civil war our occupation precipitated. For a time, our national media kept us in mind of the mass starvation there, but no longer. Our attention has shifted to another nation whose suffering occasions no self-reproach. I receive numerous appeals to aid the Ukrainians, none to aid the Afghanis or the Yemanis, another people for whose mass starvation we bear responsibility.

The mindfulness about the suffering of others to which fasting may give rise elides with a second traditional self-discipline of Lent, meditation on the cross.

There aren’t many facts about the historical Jesus about which we can be certain, but his crucifixion is one of them. Whatever hostility Jesus’ challenge to Jewish practices — such as the stoning of adulterous women (but not men) — provoked in the religious establishment, Jews didn’t kill him. Crucifixion was a distinctively Roman form of execution. And it’s almost certain that the Roman authorities killed him because they perceived him as a threat to their occupation of Judaea.

People who have ruled themselves don’t like to be ruled by an occupying force. One would think that we needn’t relearn that lesson time and again at the cost of so much suffering. Perhaps imperial states ignore it because the occupied bear most of the suffering and the occupiers reap most of the benefits. Rome grew rich off its empire. Wealth flowed mainly to the top, but there was enough left over to pacify the poor with bread and circuses.

Jewish resistance to Roman rule culminated in the armed revolt of 66-73 CE, but resistance was never dormant. Another fact about the historical Jesus of which we are reasonably certain is that he advocated nonviolent resistance. Given the disastrous outcomes of the first armed revolt and then the second (132-135), nonviolent resistance would have been the wiser course. But people are impatient with it. It entails suffering for which taking up arms initially seems a remedy.

Jesus suffered. Lenten meditation focuses on his suffering, not on any victory that may or may not have resulted from his life and work. Mark’s account of the crucifixion, which is the earliest, suggests that Jesus’s suffering wasn’t only from physical pain, but also from a sense of failure. His vision of a world transfigured by love and joy — what he called the Kingdom of God — had not been realized, perhaps had not even been understood by his closest followers. From the cross he had no prospect of victory.  

Our country is full of despair, although mostly it’s masked by anger. Our despair is warranted. There is little prospect of a livable world for our great-grandchildren. During the very years we could have averted ecological disaster, we squandered our time and resources pursuing debased visions of national greatness and the good life. The land of the living that the Rabbi Jesus opened to us is at hand if we choose to live there, but it always suffers violence, and in most seasons the violent bear it away.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Email him at

Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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