Strangely enough, Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation for Catholics. Even fifty years ago (as far as I can tell), when observation by Mass attendance was near-universal, it wasn’t required although it was strongly urged. Nowadays it seems bearing the Sign as a dark smudge on your forehead sets you apart not just as a Catholic but as that most exotic of birds, a traditionalist (or “trad”) Catholic.
Well, not really, since even Vice-President Joe Biden, held to be a “cafeteria Catholic” because of his pro-choice voting record, sported a thumbprint-like mark on TV this week. And observance isn’t strictly limited to Catholics, though it isn’t common at all among free-church Protestants. But it’s safe to say that Ash Wednesday observance is notably absent to those who have any memory predating the death of Paul VI.
Part of it is that there are plenty of churches where the pastor himself doesn’t “get” Ash Wednesday … in some cases, they don’t really “get” Lent, save in abstract. Many parish priests, especially those ordained in the ‘60s and ‘70s, tend to view Ash Wednesday as a relic of the (pre-Vatican II) “bad old days”. “We are an Easter people,” the argument goes, “and the Catholic Church is all about the saving love of Christ.” These priests have a tendency to load their homilies with plenty of feel-good messages, only occasionally reminding us that we aren’t always as good as we should be, and to shy away altogether from the tougher, more demanding articles of faith. These priests may celebrate an extra Mass or hold a special service—which has the merit of being something they can delegate to their deacons—for the sake of those who care to maintain the tradition, but they’re not so enthused as to encourage attendance.
This inability to “get” Ash Wednesday/Lent has also been a feature of many directors of religious formation (DREs) over the last forty years. Like political liberals, religious liberals have seemingly targeted the education process as the arena in which they can make the changes they want. But the de-emphasis—you can even say the radical abandonment—of rote memorization and of the time-tested Baltimore Catechism as pre-VII monstrosities, combined with their advocacy of certain non-traditional (even—dare I say it?—heretical) changes in Catholic moral teaching has ironically led them to graduate children more likely than previous generations to seek other churches, or abandon religious practice altogether, than to effect any future changes in the Church. Even more ironically, the Church in America has seen the rise of homeschooling parents determined to teach the Faith the DREs want to see changed.
So what is it about Lent that these people aren’t getting? The short answer is repentance.
The saying “We are an Easter people” is true … so far as it goes. But you can’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday. Or, as one priest put it, to get to the empty tomb, you have to pass Golgotha. The symbol of the Church is not the empty burial cloths or Jesus in his resurrected glory but the Cross on which Our Lord hung in agony. Christ could not have conquered Death without dying first.
Wow, what a bummer. And yet it’s impossible to realize the profound comedy (in the classic theatrical sense) of the Resurrection if we don’t first ponder the dolorous tragedy which made the Passion necessary: that, in choosing to exercise the great gift of free will for our own selfish desires rather than returning that gift by free service to the Divine Will, we set ourselves apart from God. Without the objective facts that we have sinned and that we do sin, Christ’s sacrifice becomes a hideously pointless exercise, the ultimate “suicide by cop”.
Read that last sentence again: Sin is an objective fact. It isn’t a psychological complex. It isn’t a perspective. It isn’t a pejorative for something we don’t want others to do. It is as much a concrete reality as we are, as much a fact as any action we perform in disobedience to God and to the detriment of others. The smart-aleck who thinks he has explained away sin is a greater danger to the health and safety of the community than the simple man who suffers from a guilt complex. Satan is a moral relativist.
Hell is a reality. We don’t need to think of it as a physical space, though the mental image has helped countless people. (And, besides, it might just be a place.) We can, instead, think of it as being eternally cut off from everything, especially God. Not only are we denied God, the eternal Satisfier of all our true desires, we are also denied the means of gratifying all our false desires. There is not a person who will suffer the torments of Hell who does or did not, in a very real sense, choose it for himself.
We say that sin is an objective reality because good is an objective reality, a quality built into our universe by God, who is Himself an objective reality. It does no good to argue to the differing standards of various cultures or times because the subjective perception of what is necessary to survive has no bearing on what is really true, just as taking a black-and-white photograph of a blue house does not change the color of the walls to gray. You can’t have as an objective truth the belief that there are no objective truths, just as you can’t have a perspective on a subject without having a subject to begin with.
It has become something of an empty platitude that Christ’s redemptive sacrifice has freed us from sin, because we have, as a culture, lost our sense of sin … or at least misplaced it. The emphasis on this freedom to the denigration, and even denial, of the fact of sin has had the net effect of robbing that sacrifice of meaning. The discussion of what that point of faith actually means can perhaps be left aside for another time. Nevertheless, we can agree that even if we were to go so far as to say that once we are saved we are always saved, it should still be a matter of mourning that such a sacrifice was ever necessary.
The fact of the matter, though, is that Vatican II did not abrogate the matter of sin. The capital sins are still Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy, and Sloth. Mortal sins still “[deprive] us of spiritual life, which is sanctifying grace, and [bring] everlasting death and damnation on the soul.” Venial sins can still become mortal sins “if we commit them through defiant contempt for God or His law; and also when they are followed by very evil consequences which we foresee in committing them.” It is still a sin to “knowingly … resist the grace of God, because we thereby insult Him and reject His gifts without which we cannot be saved.”
To properly rejoice in the salvation which Christ’s death and resurrection has brought us, then, we can prepare by spending some time in a period of mourning and repentance. During this time, we ought to reflect not just on sin in general but on our own sins in particular:
· Has indulging my pride made me vainglorious, presumptuous or a hypocrite?
· Has indulging in covetousness made me unkind, dishonest, deceitful or uncharitable?
· Has lust led me to a distaste for holy things, or a perverted conscience, or a hatred for God?
· Has indulging my anger led me to hatred, impatience or irreverence?
· Has gluttony led me to eat more than my share, or to become an addict to drink or drugs?
· Do I suffer envy, so that my friend’s success is my failure, and my neighbor’s sorrow is my joy?
· Has sloth led me to neglect either my temporal or spiritual duties, or both?
Reflecting on the sins we have committed over the last year, even if we have been punctilious in confessing them, should properly prepare our hearts to mourn the necessity of the Cross, and from there to the joy of the Resurrection.
And so, Lent is a time of communal repentance, of restructuring (even reforming) our lives for the coming year. It is a time when we heed the call uttered so long ago by St. John the Baptist: “Repent, for the day of the Lord is at hand! … Even now, the axe is laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” For indulging our sins will not add a day unto our lives, and can even cut them shorter. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
To hear the good news as good, we must first repent.