“Playing” Carnaval

Dear friends, please pray for believers in Brazil in the next seven days. Our national “celebration” is upon us and while many are able to get away to a retreat or stay home, the homeless and needy cannot. Keep them in your prayers. Following is a reflection I wrote, more for Brazilians, but might give you some insight into what’s going on here.

Ash Wednesday. I’m sitting in front of the small room where injections are given in the ER at Getúlio Vargas Hospital in Recife, Brasil. Massively crowded hallway. Stretchers jamming both sides of the corridor.

There’s only enough space for an ambulance stretcher or wheelchair to pass down the middle. And a steady stream of ambulance personnel and nurses pushing patients up and down the corridor. A crowded emergency room in a public hospital is standard fare here. But, during Carnaval you’d think a war was raging outside.

My homeless friend Tavares is in the hospital due to a “joke” by another “friend” of his. Tavares’ “friend” thought it would be funny to give him some cans of aguardiente and then, when he couldn’t stand up anymore, push him on top of a poisonous plant. To this day I haven’t discovered the name of that plant, but what it did to Tavares’ arm was sickening. It looked like a third degree burn. In addition to a broken arm, he also suffered lacerations and burning skin with a serious risk of infection.

But then, we were just one more casualty in the spiritual war zone that some call culture. While I stood, Tavares sat on a plastic chairs, waiting for the tetanus injection, an antibiotic, and the painkiller that he desperately needed to cope with the pain. We still had a small hope of getting a stretcher for him to lie down on, as Tavares would have to spend the next several days in the ER’s corridor.

While we waited, I looked at the walls of the room. Festooned with Carnaval decorations – paper ribbon streamers, horns, styrofoam balloons and hats, and the traditional masks of all types. Everything in bright colors. What an incredible celebration!

I stared at the party decor and the men, women and children, burnt, broken and bandaged, all sandwiched in chairs and lined up on gurneys in the hallway. What a party! So much to celebrate!

Of course, not all of the dozens of people being treated in the emergency room were there as a result of Carnaval. But, in the days that followed, talking to one and the other, I discovered that most were there, yes, precisely as a result of the accidents, the drinking, the fights and rapes, the DWI accidents, in short, the “jokes” of King Momo’s big party.

Did you know that “King Momo”, a character from Greek mythology, was the son of sleep and night, and, according to legend, was expelled from Olympus for ridiculing the other gods? Imagine how the true God feels on the days of our Carnaval.

Did you know that the word Carnaval comes from the Latin “carnem levāre” which means “abstaining from meat”? The expression originally referred to the Catholic church’s tradition established in the 11th century of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and prayer to begin on Ash Wednesday and leading up to Easter.

An interesting idea, certainly with good intentions. However, the arrival of the period of abstinence ended up encouraging people to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh in the period preceding these days of abstinence. That’s how the celebration of Carnaval was born!

As I looked at the colorful, cheerful decorations on the walls of the emergency room, I couldn’t help but be moved by the contrast with the battered, abused, and broken bodies around me. There was no place to sit. A man was trying to sleep in a chair. A mother huddled with her grown daughter in her lap in another chair. An elderly man limped up and down the corridors begging for someone to authorize an x-ray.

I spoke to the relatives of a young man who had suffered a stroke. He came from another state to “play” Carnaval in Recife, famous for it’s “rich culture”. And he ended up paralyzed on a stretcher. The brother, perplexed, just stared into space. He gratefully accepted a sheet of paper with a psalm on it.

I don’t have the courage to “preach” in places like this. Some do. I don’t. I can only ask one question or another to understand a little better what they are going through. I listen. I pray. We share a psalm. What happened and why is written on their faces. Where to look for hope is what they need.

Looking at all the masks on the wall, the traditional carnaval adornment begins to take on a sinister look. Why masks? Why cover up? What are you hiding? Who do you think you’re hiding from? Then, I remembered the one who covers up, hides, and deceives. The the father of all this. It’s his profession, his culture, his “art”.

Carnaval. I know it’s a big “cultural event”. Many in Brazil may have some fond memories of a meaningful family moment during Carnaval. I don’t wish to offend anyone. I just wanted to remind you that there are two sides to this coin. It’s all in fun, right? A great time for the adults to “play”. Yes of course!

I just don’t understand why the local blood banks have to make such dramatic appeals in the weeks before Carnaval. Kind of odd that the state and city have to deploy so many police officers, mobile ER’s and ambulances and reassure the public that yes, all the local hospitals will be open and ready to receive you on these happy days!

It’s a mystery why emergency rooms are crowded and the morgue will be overflowing at such a festive time. Must be just a coincidence what that obstetrician who works in the public maternity says, that in nine months so many babies will be born, the majority of them to single mothers. Strange. Must be just a coincidence.

It’s just one big party, right? Are you coming? Are you going to “play”? It’s your choice. Just one thing, if you’re coming, don’t forget your mask.

Pray for believers in Brazil. And pray for those who are not, that the Lord will be merciful, once more, one more Carnaval. Thank you for your prayers!


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