February 16, 2010

The Coming Compunction

It's my eighteenth Lent eve. I love this day, full of hopes and promise for new beginnings and a fresh start of things. I think it's a common feeling, and why Ash Wednesday is so popular.

Once in a while I get in an argument with someone about the holy days of obligation. 'They are a burden to people,' goes the usual argument, and should either all be moved to Sunday or have their obligation removed. It's too much to expect people to assist at Mass on weekdays when they have to work and do a hundred other things. My refutation of this line of argument is always the same: 'It doesn't seem to be a problem for people on Ash Wednesday.'

On the contrary; everyone goes to church on Ash Wednesday; only Christmas (among white people) and maybe Passion Sunday (among Latinos) can rival it for attendance. It's easy to get down on the people for this; as a priest it's easy to indulge disdain against the people's mania to 'get their ashes' and wonder why there couldn't be even half as much devout desire to 'get their Sunday obligation fulfilled,' 'get their sacramental absolution,' 'get their marriage regularized.' or 'get their deceased relatives a proper burial.'

But maybe that's just it: Ash Wednesday is the great 'feast day' of the not-good-enough Catholic, and the time for me to admit that I'm not only one of them but maybe the worst of all.

Perhaps everyone goes to church on Ash Wednesday not for any shallow reason--the theory of the 'A&P Catholics' comes to mind here; ashes and palms--they come when they get something--but because of some of the deepest reasons of all. We preach and teach all the time about the new life we have in Christ, about our liberation from death and sin, and our identity as an eschatological people with one foot in the New Jerusalem, the marriage of heaven and earth. (Well, at least I preach these things.) But does this doctrine really match our ordinary experience of ourselves as would-be Christians? If we are honest, isn't our ordinary experience of ourselves as Christians closer to Ash Wednesday than Easter Sunday?

Though forgiven and cleansed from guilt, doesn't the wound left in us by original sin still fester? Are we not still tricked by concupiscence and still struggling with the hooks and footholds that the world, the flesh, and the devil find in our own disordered attachments and distorted thinking?

I was baptized on a Saturday afternoon. A week and an hour later I was in the confessional on the other side of the same church, my resolutions and new life in Christ already in shambles. "Thank God for the grace of having made a good confession, tell Jesus that you love him and want to serve him faithfully from now on, say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys and now make a good Act of Contrition..." I remember what the priest said in my first confession because I wrote it down. I keep it in order to remember that I haven't made a lot of progress since then.

We who are baptized but have yet to make a solid beginning of the Christian life, we'll be in church tomorrow.

We religious whose lives of spiritual torpor and material luxury make a mockery of God and give scandal to the world, we'll be there too.

We priests who don't say our prayers, but instead give room to our laziness and abuse the people of God by indulging our arrogance and immature need to control, we'll be saying Mass for you.

See you then, brothers and sisters. It's our feast day.


Benedicta said...

I always witnessed Catholics being asked by non-Catholics about the reason why we have our ashes on our forehead every beginning of Lent and I hear them answering "from dust to dust we shall return".This is true but he/she could have explained more. Thanks for the reminders...

Warren said...

I agree with you on that "not-good-enough" point. My thoughts are posted today on my blog.