I just got home from my third ever Ash Wednesday Mass, and now that I feel like I’m an expert on the subject, I’d like to make some observations. Have you noticed that EVERYBODY comes to Ash Wednesday Mass? I attend a fairly large parrish. Our Sunday Masses are well attended, but not packed. Our holy day of obligation Masses, on the other hand, are extremely sparse. When you walk into mass on, say, The Feast of The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, you’d think you got the date wrong.
All the usual suspects are there. You know, the people who show up for everything that happens in the church. The people that you would swear must go to every single weekend Mass, because no matter which one you attend, there they are. Other than those twenty people, however, none of the other folks seem to show up (OK, twenty people is a bit of un under exaggeration, but you get my point). On the other hand, when you get to Ash Wednesday (which is NOT a holy day of obligation), the place is packed. Not only is it packed, but everyone is talking about what they gave up for Lent, or, in some cases, what they have taken on for Lent, like maybe an act of charity. The funny thing is, nobody asked them to give up anything. It’s not required by the Church that we give something up for Lent, outside of the rules of fasting and abstinence of course.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it is a good practice to give something up for Lent. Any denial of self helps bring us closer to Christ. But, it’s not required. Yet, the same people who say things like: “I don’t have to go to Mass every Sunday to feel close to God”, or “Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest?”, the same people who have know idea what the Immaculate Conception of Mary is, let alone that it is a holy day of obligation, they show up to Mass on Ash Wednesday (not required) in droves, and give up things they really like (not required) for 40 days. Which makes me ask the question – what is it about Ash Wednesday that makes people not only come to mass on a weeknight, but also give up activities or things that they love for 40 days, without anyone really asking them to?
It must be something in the ashes. If we could just give them out at Sunday Masses, confession times, and holy days of obligation then the church would be busting at the seams. We’d be putting new additions on the building every other year just to accommodate all of our ash loving brethren. I’m kidding, of course, but there is something about Ash Wednesday and Lent that brings people to the Church. What is that something?
I think it is maybe that thing naturally planted in all of us that longs for a relationship with God. We know, somewhere deep inside, that this 40 day period has been lovingly put here by Jesus Christ and His Church to give us the opportunity to start pointing our hearts toward Him. When we deny ourselves, we allow our thoughts to be placed elsewhere, hopefully toward Christ and what He has done for us. And I think that each one of us has a natural instinct to want that relationship, even if we are not consciously aware of it.
I know that before I converted I used to make fun of Lent. I used to tell people things like “I’m going to give up being sober for Lent” or “for Lent I’m going to quit giving things up” and other stupid things just to be funny. In reality, however, what I was doing was denying that tiny voice inside that was telling me I should be doing something. I had friends that I used to hang out with, friends who I know NEVER went to Mass, who would give up drinking for Lent. I hated it. It gave me one less person to hang out with if they weren’t drinking. How selfish of them. Why didn’t they think of me and my needs to have a drinking buddy? Most of them did not give up drinking to bring their hearts closer to Christ, at least not consciously, but they did consider it some sort of spiritual test of will. I considered it stupid.
I see the point now, though. Sacrifice brings us closer to Him. It’s what makes a marriage work, it’s what makes people good parents, it’s what makes someone a good friend. Sacrifice. Being willing to give something up for someone else. Suffer on behalf of another, even if just a little bit. After all, isn’t that we He did for us?