Ash Wednesday Breaks All the Rules of Modern Churchthink

The Word for Lent is Repent. Metanoiate, the Greek Word for repent, means more literally, “come to a new way of thinking.” Here then is a second installment in my proposed Lenten series challenging us to think differently and see things in a new or differently ways from the common zeitgeist.

Modern Evangelization methods and parish “mission and vision statements” seem almost exclusively focused on staying “positive.”  Keywords include: welcoming, inclusion, and diversity.  Yes indeed, come to our lovely parishes, we are a welcoming, embracing and joyful faith family! or so the sayings go. Still-shrinking numbers suggest most people aren’t buying it and don’t find the vision compelling.

And then comes Ash Wednesday, a wildly popular day that isn’t even a Holy Day of Obligation, and it breaks every rule of the typically modern parish plan. Numbers aren’t just slightly higher on Ash Wednesday, they are remarkably higher.

And what is our message (if we are faithful to it)? Simply this: “Repent, you are going to die.” And while you’re at it, fast, pray and give alms.  We further alarm the congregants with messages from the Prophet Joel and St. Paul that give  urgent admonition that we should weep and fast on account of our sins, that we must be reconciled to God. And then we smudge soot on their foreheads.

It’s pretty humbling isn’t it? The usual Catholic fare in too many parishes looks and sounds nothing like this. Sin is soft pedaled, calls to repentance and conversion are shunned as non-welcoming and even hateful, and any talk of death, judgement or the possibility of Hell is just unthinkable. Maybe Ash Wednesday teaches us that we have things to learn!

There is very little “gravitas” evident in many modern parish settings. Hence, there is often little respect given to what we do. Frankly the problem isn’t what we do, it is what we fail to do. Cheerfulness has its place but, if you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news. And hence, we fail to explain the very reason for our existence. We’re running a spiritual hospital but through our widespread silence about sin we imply there is no real illness or dangerous injuries to avoid. So who needs our hospital?  Our widespread modern cheerfulness is  not a compelling message because deep down most people know they’re in rough shape but the appointed doctors are more interested in attracting patients than healing them.

But then comes Ash Wednesday when, for at least a minute, the doctor (pastor) is willing to say, “You’ve got to be more serious and get with the program since your death will not tarry.” And this commands the respect that so much of our other messages fail to summon. It is not the cheerful, welcoming, inclusive and diverse message we are told will fill the pews, but we do well to heed the lesson motivation is more complicated than just seeming appealing. Commanding respect through a serious and necessary message is more important than many realize. Jesus was no clown attracting people to some circus entertainment. He knew how to look crowds in the eye, urgently summon them to repent and be serious about the difficult task of being true disciples. Death and judgment awaited them and there were but two outcomes: Heaven or Hell. Something of Ash Wednesday touches this serious side of Jesus that we have too easily cast aside.

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