No, I haven’t invented a fasting-friendly beverage of some sort. (And I swear I’m not hung up on the “no alcohol for Lent” thing!) This past Wednesday was, of course, Ash Wednesday. I was a little miffed to get to work extra early and find an Aggie car in my regular parking spot, but then I remembered that Ash Wednesday is really not the time to be getting easily frustrated, and we were expecting an Aggie priest for the first Mass of the day. He gave a delightful homily about God’s “scandalously strong” love for us despite our sins. It reminded me of the homily I heard the day I came back to the Church.
We had three more Masses that day, plus an ecumenical Christian service with Episcopalians, Lutherans, and ashes, but no communion. Mass attendance has been up in general this year, but I have honestly never seen that many people come to Mass in one day, and the ecumenical service attendance was also way up. And it’s not even a holy day of obligation! (I like to call it a holy day of non-obligation.) The long lines of people coming through the door (and shaking the priest’s hand on the way in, one by one) made it seem as though a penitent Catholic clown car had just unloaded at the curb.
My annual befuddlement over where all these people come from (and why they never come on any of the actual holy days of obligation—including every single Sunday) made me toss around some ideas with my coworkers. There must be something compelling beyond the annual communal call to repentance. Perhaps it’s the clear and visible sign that you went to church that day: black ashes in the shape of a cross, right in the middle of your forehead. You don’t have to be Catholic to receive ashes. As long as you agree that you are dust that will return to dust (or in the lesser-used form, that you will turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel) and are okay with being marked with a Christian symbol, step right up. The prospect of getting free stuff is a draw for anyone.
The underlying problem—why people show up on Ash Wednesday but then not even every Sunday—could potentially be solved by giving out more obvious signs on other holy days. Ashes say, “I’m in the Catholic (Christian) club,” for better or for worse. We just need to give people more things that have the same effect.
- All Saints Day: Two words: Mini halos
- Christmas: Body glitter on the forehead in the shape of baby Jesus (it might take a while to put on, but so does holiness)
- Immaculate Conception: Stickers that say “I prayed” with a picture of the rosary (like the U.S. flag ones you get after you vote)
- Ascension: Red face painted up arrows on the forehead (toward heaven, of course)
- Assumption: Same arrow, but in Marian blue
- Mary, Mother of God: Smack a blue M sticker on the back of the hand (Mama [of God] loves you, but sometimes you do dumb stuff, so she smacks you like your earthly mama would)
It’ll be the biggest draw into the Church since The Light Is On for You!