Carnival is a festival held in many, predominately Roman Catholic, countries in the days leading up to Lent. In contrast to the Lenten season’s forty-day focus on fasting and self-denial, Carnival is a time of excess and self-indulgence—a time to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet.” Carnival is the indulgence before the fast, one last binge before having to give something up for forty days. The most famous Carnival is held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, every year. Other Carnivals are held in Italy, Venice, Uruguay, and Spain, as well as in other parts of Brazil. In the United States, Mardi Gras is the equivalent of Carnival.
The basic idea behind Carnival is that you can live it up for a while—and then confess your sin on Ash Wednesday. Different countries have different lengths of Carnival time, but in most places the hedonistic party extends for about a week, with pre-Carnival events, parades, cultural dances, and merry-making in the streets. In some places, there are even post-Carnival events, Ash Wednesday being swallowed up in the partying.
For many people, the week of Carnival is a free pass to do whatever you want. The revelers are open about their fleshly pursuits: each year in Rio de Janeiro is a ceremony in which the keys to the city are handed over to “the king of carnal delights.” In the minds of partygoers, any misbehavior during Carnival is justified. During Carnival, nothing “counts”; it’s as if it never happened. Because of the license to sin, people lie, fight, get drunk, use drugs, and engage in sexual promiscuity more than at any other time of the year. Crime is a perennial problem at Carnival, with arrests made every year for sexual assault, murder, illegal gambling, theft, illegal gun possession, etc.
The world claims that Carnival is a celebration of life, but the lascivious activities condoned by Carnival-goers lead to death (Proverbs 11:19). Revelers at Carnival fly the fake flag of happiness and joy, but underneath it all is rebellion against God.
Some churches in Brazil plan retreats to get away from all the clamor and corruption of Carnival and focus instead on spiritual things. Other churches and missions groups take the occasion of Carnival to do street witnessing in an attempt to evangelize the lost.
“Beloved, I urge you . . . to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11, ESV). Carnival is a celebration of the fleshly lusts that we are to abstain from. We are in a spiritual battle. At stake are the health, the strength, the liberty, the purity, and the comfort of our souls.
When we dally with sin and the fleshly lusts that war against our souls, we become like Samson in the lap of Delilah (see Judges 16:4–6, 15–21). The Christian who toys with fleshly lusts such as are celebrated at Carnival is like Samson fooling around with Delilah. And, like Samson in the lap of Delilah, the Christian who compromises his morals risks losing his spiritual strength and freedom.
We are “children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5; cf. Romans 13:13–14). Rather than pursue worldly celebrations such as Carnival, we would do well to heed Galatians 5:16 “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (NKJV).