Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. Oddly, my yearly custom has become a Facebook complaint about Mass attendance. Normally people opine sparse Mass attendance. But, on Ash Wednesday, even more than Christmas and Easter, pews swell with souls seeking to be dusted with the remains of burned palms. This is what I opine. It's frustrating because it isn't a major celebration in the liturgical life of the Church. It has a special place in the liturgical cycle. However, it's importance is derived from its relationship to Easter. Ash Wednesday is a midway point. It's a time to look back to Adam and the fall. But it's also a time to look ahead toward Christ and the redemption. It's like gazing down from the top of a mountain dividing two radically different countries. But we are no idle sightseers. We are on a journey from the one land to the other. From sinnful Egypt to holy Jerusalem. The midpoint is important. But this is only due to its relationship to the beginning and to the end of that journey.
This journey of ours is rather odd. It's less like a forced march through rugged terrain and more like a guided tour through a national park. The land has already been tamed. Christ has tamed it. We are simply following after his footsteps. Our guide, the Church, is moving us along the trail he has already cut. Along the journey our guide points out for us significant markers along the roadside for our benefit. This is one way to see the liturgical cycle.
When the Church identifies for us the hierarchy of celebrations she is helping us discern what is important for us to see or know about on our journey. This is why days and seasons are ranked. This is why we have days of precept, days of obligation, and days that are neither. Some celebrations teach us more about the Christian life than others. The Church, as both Mother and Teacher guides us in our path toward greater personal conformity to Christ through establishing which ones are important for us to celebrate. This isn't something we get to choose. The student doesn't get to dictate the lesson plan of the teacher. But this is how so many people act. For one reason or another people choose the lessons they want to accept or not. The student/teacher relationship is broken.
America is a child of the enlightenment. Hyper individualism is a foundational disposition of the American ethos. All things get subordinated to the radical autonomy of the individual. Choice is held to be the most important human power in our modern culture. But this is an exaggeration in our society, in ourselves, that should be brought under control.
Unfortunately, I think that the constant reducing and transferring of obligatory liturgical celebrations has damaged our liturgical sensibilities. Ecclesiastical authority may have unwittingly capitulated to this central vice of American society. Not raising the bar and holding people accountable has contributed to the general religious confusion in our time. The establishment and maintaining of obligatory celebrations helps us set priorities in life. Establishing a precept about mandating Mass attendance communicates to people that this action, and this particular celebration is very important. It goes on the top of the list. But instead, I fear we have communicated the opposite.
This is one puzzle piece to a much larger problem. But, it's an easy place to start solving it. That Ash Wednesday has a greater attendance than, say, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, is, to me, a sign that we have our loves seriously out of order.