As Ash Wednesday approaches, I find myself mourning the Catholic church of yesteryear. I miss that bygone era when Popes didn’t retire and Midnight Mass was actually said at midnight. Today, we alter the text of the liturgy in the name of authenticity even as we homogenize the pronouns to render them politically correct. The mixed message? We’ll agonize over the precise translation, then carefully amend it to avoid offending anyone. NEWSFLASH! Jesus offended many people;
if you recall, his teachings got him crucified. It would be impossible to follow in his footsteps without treading on a few toes.
Some years back, I read an Internet article citing that Ash Wednesday Mass is almost as well-attended as Christmas and Easter. Not because Catholics feel the need for penitence, the author says, but because we can’t resist the lure of something free, in this case, a complimentary smudge of ashes on our forehead! The tradition of giving something
up for Lent has been similarly cheapened. One of our parish priests held that Lenten Sundays are considered “Little Easters” on which our resolutions need not apply. That year, I gave up coffee, but indulged
in a cup (or two, sometimes five) every Sunday. In exchange for this sanctified cheating, The Good Lord saw to it that I suffered caffeine withdrawl headaches on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and half of Thursday. Thanks a latte, Father!
Another priest told us that Easter officially begins on the cusp of the Triduum, Holy Thursday evening. Good Friday, of course, remains a day of fast and abstinence, but Thursday and Saturday are fair game for an early celebration. When I subtracted all the days that didn’t count and hummed a few bars, I realized that “These thirty days of Lent, O Lord” just didn’t have the same ring to it. It’s the kind of hymn that proclaims, We’re with you, Jesus, 75% of the way! And in no artistic rendering
of The Last Supper have I ever seen a disciple prematurely sneaking a marshmallow Peep for dessert. In my opinion, a half-assed sacrifice is almost worse than none at all. To work its magic on a hardened heart, denial of self must necessarily involve pain and difficulty. Lent should not be a search for loopholes, but a steadfast inner journey, one that challenges us to dig deeper and give until it hurts:
RAISING THE BAR ON SELF-SACRIFICE
Years ago, I exchanged email with an active duty friend deployed to a bare-bones base in
a Middle Eastern country plagued by sand-storms and alcoholic prohibition. They had erected the very tents they slept in and ate every dismal meal in their chow hall. They pulled long shifts and remained on-call for duty 24-7. They had no BX or post office for the first few months. This meant if you ran out of Q-tips or some other necessity, your only options were to beg, borrow or steal. Alas, there was nowhere to purchase them and no way to receive a care package from home. The contracted laundry service returned their clothing dingy and gray. Communication with family and friends involved waiting one’s turn for a shared phone or computer. He was reading Dante’s Inferno for kicks, for heaven’s sake! He was curious about Catholic beliefs and traditions, so these were often topics of our conversation. As Ash Wednesday drew near, I inquired what he planned to give up for Lent. “The list grows ever shorter,” he replied, “Oxygen, perhaps? Or the tattered remains of my sanity?” Now that, my friends, is hardcore. Giving up coffee seemed paltry in comparison. I resolved that as soon as these folks had a functional post office, a care package would be on its way—a tank of oxygen, a handful of marbles (to replace any he’d lost), some Q-tips, and a whole freaking case of marshmallow Peeps. It was the least I could do.
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