This year, Ash Wednesday is Valentine’s Day (February 14) and Easter Sunday is April Fools’ Day (April 1). It’s a cryptic joke. Whatever it means, here’s some inspired advice: Unless you think a candlelight dinner with sardines and water is romantic, enjoy your Valentine’s dinner before February 14. If you dine sumptuously on Ash Wednesday, I am confident that you’ll be cast into the “outer darkness” to “wail and grind your teeth” (Matthew 13:42). After Mass today, go on Open Table and make your Valentine’s dinner reservation for tonight. Also, Monday is a slow restaurant day, and Tuesday is Mardi Gras. So there’s plenty of time for romance and fun food before Ash Wednesday. In any event, fasting and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday is non-negotiable. Give your spouse or significant other the red box of chocolates tonight. Or, put it in the Easter basket on April Fools’ Day.
Restaurants advertise sumptuous dinner deals for Valentine’s Day. I get it. It’s their public service to romance. They keep love happy. Love keeps them prosperous. That’s the modern market. But there’s something I miss about the ancien régime: commercial closures on sacred days. There used to be businesses in south Louisiana that closed on Holy Days. I once waited and waited for a bus in Geneva, Switzerland, only to be told in French by a passing young woman – with shaved head, chains and leather skirt – that there’s no public transportation on “l'Ascension.” I didn’t recognize that word, spoken. I asked her, “Qu'est-ce que c'est ?” (What is that?) She looked at me as if to say, “What are you, stupid or something?” She said something like “L’élévation du Christ au ciel,” while upwardly gesturing with her hands. Of course, who else but a 1980’s punker Suisse would explain the Ascension to an American Catholic? That was May 1986. But it comes down to this: There are some sacred observances that no one dare touch. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” There are some trees from which fruit shouldn’t be plucked. There are some bells we shouldn’t ring:
Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.
(C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew)
Ring not the bell that violates a sacred law. Observe Ash Wednesday with due solemnity. Don’t be like Esau, who cashed in his birthright for a meal (see Genesis 25:29-34). Fasting means (technically) two half meals and one full meal. No snacks in between. That won’t kill you. Abstinence means no meat. Fish, peanuts, eggs, yogurt and alligator in meager portions are fair game.
Fasting and penance and sacrifice, at set times, are ancient observances. There’s a primeval intuition that all people have: We owe a debt to God. Even atheists know it. It has nothing to do with “believing” in God. It has nothing to do with any “belief.” Everyone knows by instinct that they owe a debt to God, even if they don’t believe in God. It’s not an “idea.” It’s a sense. You’re not totally happy. You know it. You’re restless. Unsettled. Bored. Anxious. Worried. Envious. Desirous. Lonely. Insecure. Feeling left out. Got FOMO. Mad. Sad. Bad. Depressed. Too fat. Too skinny. Too dumb. No matter how good you get, you always fall short. JMU means “Just Missed UVA.” UMW means “U Missed William and Mary.” Just missed the 99th percentile. Miserable. Despite the fact that you make more money than 99% of planet Earth and your children are getting one of the best educations in history, you’re unhappy. Never mind that some children in Peru grow up in garbage dumps. Some have been trafficked all their lives. But something’s missing, for you. Why? Ask your child’s religion teacher.
To be sure, the prescription that the Church gives – fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday – is not, strictly speaking, God’s law. It’s an ancient tradition that became Church law. Yes, you might say it’s “man-made” – by bishops (whose authority is not man-made). To be sure, some Church laws and practices are man-made and some are not. Some are divinely revealed and cannot be tweaked: the Ten Commandments, the Natural Moral Law, Sacraments, Priesthood, Marriage, Articles of the Creed, doctrine – to name a few. But some Church practices and laws – even some mandatory ones – are prescribed by bishops (in accord with the Pope) as a practical application of God’s Law. You might call it a divine “app.” Fasting and abstinence are ancient practices in both the Old and the New Covenants. All observant Jews and Jesus Himself fasted. We’re all bound to fast in one way or another. But exactly when we are required to fast is for bishops to decide. Yes, it’s about (1) the power of the “keys” (binding and loosing) and (2) good old-fashioned obedience to (legitimate) authority. Yes, God leaves some religious things up to bishops, and we are bound by them. We can’t say, by a vote of one-to-nothing, “Who are those guys in robes and pointy hats to tell me what to do?” If you want to see what do-it-yourself religion eventually comes to, go to a snake-handling service. Obedience is part of redemption. Obedience conquers willfulness. Fasting conquers selfishness. Abstinence conquers worldliness.
When I was a college chaplain, students loved Ash Wednesday and Lent – ashes, fasting, abstinence, penance. It was chic. Some went vegan. Gotta’ feel it. Rites, rituals, observances, weird diets, costumes and symbols. Feel the Bern.
- Ash Wednesday and Good Friday: Fast and abstain from meat. Feel the hunger. Offer it up for your sins and people who suffer. Do it cheerfully. Don’t look glum. If you’re miserable, fake it. Suck it up. No cheating: no stuffed flounder, no artichoke and crab dip, no Bluepoint oysters or Legal Seafood. Get ashes.
- All Fridays in Lent: No meat. What’s up at St. Agnes?
- Soup Suppers at 5:30 PM
- Fish Fry on March 23 at 5:30 PM
- Confessions at 7:00 PM
- Stations of Cross at 7:30 PM
- Experience Lent: Lent lasts 40 days, not counting Sundays. Moses passed 40 nights on a mount. So did Elijah. So did Jesus in the desert.
- Penance: Monday-Saturday, forego non-sinful pleasure like sweets, Starbucks, snacks, ice cream, salad dressing, social media, video games. Do penance: Eat boiled Brussels sprouts. Be nice to nasty colleagues. Democrats be nice to Republicans. Republicans be nice to Democrats. No backhandedness. Die to self. Grow in charity.
- Pray: Spend an occasional hour with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Say a daily rosary. Say the Litany of Saints or a Litany of Loreto, daily.
- Read the Bible: Gospels, Psalms, Proverbs, Tobit, Sirach and Wisdom.
- Read a Saint’s Biography: Good for Confirmation candidates.
- Give to the Bishop’s Lenten Appeal (BLA): Make a monetary sacrifice for the missions of the Diocese of Arlington.
- St. Joseph Altar (Sunday, March 18, after Noon Mass): Celebrate St. Joseph in the Parish Hall. Solemnity of St. Joseph (March 19): Put a picture or statue of St. Joseph on your dining table and light a candle. Have a feast. Say the Litany of St. Joseph. It’s online.
- Palm Sunday (March 25): Palm Sunday marks our entry into Holy Week. March 25 is usually the Annunciation, nine months before Christmas. But this year, Palm Sunday bumps the Annunciation to April 9.
- The Chrism Mass (Holy Thursday, March 29, 10:30AM, Cathedral of St. Thomas More): Celebrated by the Bishop with clergy. He blesses the Oil of Catechumens (Holy Oil), Oil of the Sick and the Sacred Chrism. Chrism will be used at baptism, confirmations and ordinations.
- Mass of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Thursday, 7:30PM): Commemorates the Last Supper and first Eucharist. The tabernacle is emptied before Mass. During the Gloria, bells are rung. They will remain silent until the Easter Vigil. The “Washing of Feet” (after the homily) recalls Jesus’ washing of the Apostles’ feet: "For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (John 13:15). After Communion, the Eucharist is transferred to a flowered altar. Pray with Him for an hour.
- Good Friday (March 30): Fasting and abstinence. Take off work and school. Come to the 3:00 PM Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion and 7:30 PM Stations of the Cross.
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor