If you asked a priest: On which day of the liturgical year have you celebrated Mass in the most-crowded church?
Among the priests of the preceding generation, I think all would certainly say, Christmas or Easter.
But I would give you a different answer. I have celebrated Christmas and Easter Masses in some pretty crowded churches, to be sure. And Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe day—crowded. But when I think of the three or four most crowded Masses I have ever celebrated, they were all on the same liturgical day: Ash Wednesday.
Perhaps a generational change has occurred. To speculate about what precisely this change is—perhaps it is futile to do so. But I have an idea.
Times change; the world changes. Our sense of what kind of state the world is in—that changes, too. Customs, habits–even the way we speak, the words we use—all these change. They change at a level deeper than politics, deeper than the cable-news cycle can cover. A generation passes, and the continental plates under the surface of our psychological earth shift. We look around us, and we see a different world than people saw a generation ago.
On Christmas, we rejoice that, in this world, the divine light shines through the darkness. Amen. On Easter we wear pastels, and sing, and smell the flowers. This is a beautiful earth, full of promise! Indeed.
The truths of Christmas and Easter are always true. And a generation ago, for whatever reason, the optimistic sentiments of these liturgical days predominated in the world at large. I remember, when I was a kid, everybody wanted to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company. World peace seemed right around the corner.
Ash Wednesday, of course, has an altogether different tone. No pastels. And the optimism of faith lays shrouded in other emotions. We emblazon ourselves with crosses of mortal black. We quietly acknowledge: All is not well.
Our world is beautiful, sure. Hope springs eternal, sure. But, let’s face it: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Buy the world a Coke? Teach the world to sing? Instead of “Love is Flowing Like a River,” the song should probably begin with: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Maybe we could say this:
This Ash-Wednesday generation is distinguished by the following sentiment: Our beloved world has serious problems. Yes, there is great promise. Yes, we ourselves have promise. But the path towards realizing all our potential runs through a hard valley of penance and self-abandonment. The valley lays shrouded in darkness. We are not sure exactly how to follow the path. We might even go so far as to say that the human race, as a whole, appears not to know how to follow it. We need supernatural help. And we know that the only really reasonable way to start is to kneel down.
A well-known priest has made a kind of mini-series about Catholicism. In one of the episodes, he discussed atheism.
He made an interesting point: “The god that atheists think we believe in, and whom they reject—I don’t believe in him, either. They think we believe in some kind of distant architect of perfection who just wound the world up, like a clock, a long time ago, so that it could run its own course, all by itself. But we do not believe in such a god.”
We believe in the real God. The real God is infinitely harder to understand than a distant clock maker. He is so much greater than we are, so much greater than the world He has made, that He can transcend us completely and still be closer to us than we are even to ourselves.
So: If we think that Ash Wednesday and Lent involve making shallow promises to some kind of far-away god, who just wants me to lose a few pounds— If we think our religion rises or falls on how many diet Cokes I drink between now and Easter—well, maybe we shouldn’t even bother.
But if I am ready to start an adventure, an adventure that involves getting closer to the infinitely transcendent, thoroughly mysterious God Who loves this world enough to die on a cross to save it—if we are ready for that humbling thrill-ride of a Lent, we can make an excellent start together today.