Tomorrow marks the beginning of the most solemn and depressing six weeks imaginable when you are the proud card carrying member of the Catholic Church; Ash Wednesday. Nothing puts an exclamation point on "catholic guilt" more than the six-week season of Lent will. Doesn't matter what the weatherman says--Holy Week is always a cloudy, miserable week...even Mother Nature thinks we should suffer.
Come Good Friday, even if the sun is shining all morning, at approximately 11:59 a.m. the clouds roll in with thunder and lightning sure to follow. And, like clockwork, at 3:01 p.m. the clouds always part with the sun peaking out as if to say, hey, it's going to be okay. We always saw this as kids from inside--no one was allowed outside from noon until three...went against the rules. We'd steal glimpses out of the window while we were kneeling in silent prayer.
Like anything associated with the Catholic Church--there are many rules. No meat on Fridays is a big one--as Catholic kids we suffered through tuna fish casserole or grilled cheese and tomato soup for the six Fridays during lent.
Usually these were rotated every other Friday, although my Mom reserved the right to shake things up a bit and serve tuna less the macaroni on burned toast points (she scraped most of the charred remains off before serving and always opened the windows to clear the smoke--and it wasn't the operator's fault in case you're wondering--we were told our toaster never worked properly).
Today's brats are served cheese ravioli, cheese pizza, vegetarian lasagna, spaghetti marinara, or for the really creative family, a veggie sandwich from Subway. That's another thing with the Catholic Church--they are forever changing things. Rules are not meant to be broken, but the top holy rollers reserve the right to change things up every now and then; keeps us guilty Catholics on our toes. Makes certain we're paying attention.
After the yearly Mardi Gras celebration at my alma mater we always settled into our desks and began drawing a picture or writing an essay of what we planned to give up for Lent. It had to be something that would really hurt...something you would truly miss...something you'd go without for six long weeks--make your choice wisely.
Then you'd grab your crayons and make a sign that would be taped to the front of your desk. Now that your promise to give up candy, pop, or throwing spitballs at the nose picker two rows in front of you was made public, all the catholic tattletales you shared Room #23 with could keep their eyes on you and as a result keep you on the path to your Easter morning basket loaded to the top with the evil thing you'd given up for the previous six weeks.
My kids came home with a new concept of this rule during their tenure at "Our Lady Wrapped in a Blue Ribbon, Catholic". Instead of giving something up, they were gently instructed to make a promise to do something--to make themselves a better child in God's eyes. Make Lent a more positive experience.
Oh, give me a break. As a Catholic school kid I was never gently instructed to do anything. Sure we'd all shared experiences, although in our day none were positive and facing the wrath of Sister Eunice was all the motivation we required to tow the line.
Amazingly enough, my boy's choices were easy to make. The older one wasn't going to argue with his brother--of course this left beating him to a pulp completely wide open--my oldest, God Bless him, is a follower of the Greg Brady Exact Words Manual.
I knew this promise wouldn't last longer than the stretch of Ash Wednesday 'til the first Friday night meal brought to you exclusively by the ingredient Cheese. The younger one would take out the garbage and give "his" spare change to the needy.
Praise the Lord, does that mean I can give taking the garbage out for my Lenten promise? Hardly. We're already one petrified cat short of being the next family spotlighted on Hoarders...six weeks of garbage back up would just make us seem gross.
I knew all too well this promise wasn't going to last either, although the give change to the needy might; Quincy was up to his elbows in my purse cleaning out the change...next stop, the couch...let's join hands and sing Kumbaya, he was about to hit the mother lode.
Boy oh boy has the Catholic Church changed since I was a kid sitting in the front pew surrounded by complete fear. Who could ever forget Miss Zaurauski telling us if we dared to touch that Communion Host with our grubby hands lightning would strike us dead.
She looked much like Mr. Drysdale's secretary, Miss Hathaway--from the Beverly Hillbillies, right down to her pencil thin skirts, two-piece sweater sets, and cat-eye-like shaped glasses. She also talked like Jane Hathaway--she always added a "zing to her ings"...Miss Zaurauski always emphasized the "ing" in king, sing, and of course lightning much like Drysdale's secretary did.
Confession was secretively heard behind a screen...I thought it was because Father Daly didn't want to see my sinful face--my Dad always used that as an excuse when we misbehaved--he'd bellow "Now, get out of my sight" right after he doled out punishments.
Actually, Father Daly didn't mind looking at a sinful kid's face, he was merely covering up the fact he was reading the morning news while absolving bratty third graders' sins. I'd caught a glimpse of the Tribune's front page while returning to my pew to say my ten Holy Marys after spilling my guts regarding the incident in Room 6.
Today, confessions are face-to-face--or for the coward that lives inside each and every Catholic Soldier--a community confession conveniently held the Monday before Christmas and the Monday before Holy Week begins.
It satisfies the "clear-your-heart-of-sins-before-the-major-Church-holiday" rule, and you'd better bet I'm onboard with this newbie. All sins are absolved if you're willing to sit like a packed sardine through a forty-five minute prayer service.
I think it adds to the all-must-suffer-theme the church advocates...I find I'm steps closer to heaven's doors following each reconciliation service I participate in. If you're interested in participating, arrive early--much like Christmas and Easter Mass, its standing room only. Father Ed always invites us to get closer in the pews--squeeze closer to each other in order to make room for all the sinners.
Sure the rules have changed, but the message remains constant. Holy Week is a time to reflect and get ready for Easter vigil on Holy Saturday evening, the good news come Easter Sunday morning--(not to mention the blaring of the trumpets, trombones, and cymbals at our parish...it's almost like a battle of the band--everyone brings their instrument to play--I personally think it's to ensure a seat at Easter Sunday mass). Somehow the Easter message never changes. Good always comes to those who wait.
Easter comes late on this year's calendar. Last year, Easter was on the fourth of April. This year we wait until the twenty-fourth. This year's late date promises longer days and sunshine as lent begins right before the official start of spring; a few days before we turn the clocks ahead.
The message remains the same~we must suffer in order to fully appeciate the Good News that awaits all Christians come Easter morning. How we choose to prepare is up to us.