And so it begins, the annual period of penance and preparation for the great festival of the Lord's Paschal Mystery. I hope everyone made it to Mass today, and that you were able to fight your way through the crowds of occasional Catholics who tend to help fill the churches on Ash Wednesday--and I would guess probably a fair number of non-Catholics, as well. Indeed, the observance of Lent for many people has descended to the secular level, having been robbed of all or nearly all religious significance.
I have a personal theory about this, and it has to do with the message of today's Gospel reading, which is essentially the same in both the Novus Ordo and Traditional Latin Mass. You all know the drift: Our Lord instructs the faithful during the Sermon on the Mount on the things to avoid in the "Lenten triad" of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, in addition to giving us the Our Father. Essentially, Jesus admonishes us against showing off: don't stand around praying on street corners, don't heap up empty words in prayer like the pagans, and when giving alms don't let the left hand know what the right is doing.
Yet hundreds of people descend on every parish on Ash Wednesday who rarely if ever darken the door any other day, perhaps with the exception of Christmas and Easter. Why? Forgive me if I suggest that for most of these, their purpose probably is not to reconcile with our Lord and his Church through a faithful pursuit of the Lenten discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, going to confession and attending Mass every week and possibly even some weekdays.
A goodly number of them are there for one thing, and one thing only: to get those ashes applied to their foreheads. In my experience, after the imposition of ashes a significant number of people head for the exits, not even sticking around for the real purpose of the Mass. Even those who stay, if they are occasional Mass-goers, probably are only there for the ashes.
Do any of these people comprehend and internalize the meaning of the ashes, as a symbol of dying to self and seeking to rise in new life with Christ through repentance and conversion of heart, or understand what Lent is supposed to be all about? I think not; if they did, they wouldn't be occasional Catholics in the first place. It's all about the badge, a show-off sign for their friends and family and the public. "Look at me, I'm holy." They will flaunt their badges, brag to their friends about how they are giving up chocolate or coffee or something equally trite, and disappear from church for the next six and a half weeks. In other words, exactly what Christ warned against in the Gospel today. I pray that at least some of these people might respond to the grace they received by attending Holy Mass and truly enter into the season of Lent with the purpose for which the Church gives it to us.
And speaking of that purpose...I just criticized as "trite" the giving up of chocolate or coffee, which seem to be widespread choices for Lenten "discipline", if my anecdotal experience over many years in the workplace, combined with references seen in the popular media, is any indication. This sort of choice reflects two things, in my view: First, the aforementioned general secularization of the season, and second, the loss of the meaning of the Lenten discipline even among many nominally practicing Catholics. In a secularized environment, where for most people Lent has become nothing more than a short-term variant of a New Year's resolution, giving up something relatively insignificant is an easy way to be cool and do a little showing off, just like getting the ashes on the forehead. For those 25% or so of self-identified Catholics who actually go to Mass at least weekly, however, a more elevated understanding of the nature and purpose of Lenten sacrifice should be the rule, rather than the exception. Sadly this seems not to be the case.
As an RCIA catechist I have had a number of chances to discuss this issue with inquirers, candidates and Catechumens over the past nine years, and I have been unpleasantly surprised at the usual reaction to my standard opening statement: "Lent is not about giving up chocolate!" Wide-eyed shock is the prevailing response. Even after an explanation of the need for genuine personal sacrifice, made with a disposition of sincere contrition and desire to grow closer to God, too many still appear not to comprehend. The cause might be aided by a little more attention to the subject of sacrifice from the pulpit, not only during Lent, but all during the year, although you can probably guess how often that happens. It seems that the Modernist reduction of the essence of the Mass itself into nothing more than a communal meal of self-celebration has had a similarly negative impact on the observance of Lent. Fasting and abstinence were already reduced to a minimum by Paul VI in 1966, with only two required fasting days and abstinence from meat only on Lenten Fridays, rather than both Fridays and Saturdays, so the subsequent deterioration of Lenten piety in general is perhaps no surprise. It behooves each of us to do our part to reverse this scandal, for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls, starting with ourselves and our families.
Laudator Jesus Christus!