I seriously considered not going to Mass on Ash Wednesday. In fact I came pretty close to not going. My reason was partly that I just didn't want to bother, and was possessive of the time involved, because I had some other things I wanted to do that day. But the strongest reason was my desire to avoid hearing the song "Ashes." I don't know whether I should call it a hymn or not. Perhaps I should, since it's a piece that's sung as part of a worship service. But the word sort of sticks in my throat when I try to use it for this and many other...songs that are sung at Mass. I'll give "Ashes" this much credit: in tone it is more hymn-like than many such compositions.
But for reasons that (1) I would have difficulty articulating and (2) probably should not try to articulate because doing so would involve some distinctly uncharitable thoughts about the song's composer, and even more about the apparent consensus among music directors in Catholic parishes that it should always, always be sung on Ash Wednesday--for these reasons, I'll just say that it produces a reflexive antipathy in me. It puts me in an entirely undevotional frame of mind, which is a bad way to begin Lent. I've been hearing it for a good many years now, and the reaction is not as potent as it once was, but it's still fairly strong. Part of my method for coping with it has been to treat hearing it as a penance and the attempt to control my reaction to it as mortification.
(In case you're a regular reader of this blog and are wondering: our Ordinariate group is so small and scattered that we ordinarily don't meet apart from Sundays, and on other holy days I often go to the local parish, which as contemporary parishes go is not bad liturgically--but still, I could be reasonably sure of hearing "Ashes.")
Most of that is true every year, and I wouldn't have considered not going, however little I wanted to, except that it dawned on me this year that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation (for non-Catholics: these are days, apart from Sunday, when Catholics are officially required to go to Mass). I think I've always just somehow assumed that it was. But of course it isn't. So I thought "Hey, I can skip it without being in technical violation of the rules." But that, obviously, is entirely the wrong way to look at it. As our priest said in his homily today, it's usually Satan's voice saying "I wonder if this is really a sin." (At least for most of us--it's a very different matter for those who are troubled with excessive scrupulosity, in which case it may be Satan's saying"It's probably a sin," and God's voice saying "Don't worry about it.")
Not to say that it would have been a grave sin if I'd skipped Ash Wednesday Mass. It would have been a relatively minor one, and in some circumstances for some people not a sin at all. But for me it certainly would have been: it would have been a deliberate and conscious refusal of something I knew to be a duty toward God.
In the end, though, it wasn't the desire to avoid that sin that convinced me to go. It was a sense that the observation of Ash Wednesday, and especially the actual reception of ashes, is not a private devotion, and that my participation in it along with a few hundred other ordinary lay Catholics is important--important to me as a recognition of my place in the community of sinners, and to me and the whole Church as a recognition of its mystical nature, something more organically real than a simple collection of individuals. To have stayed home would have been a sort of insult to that body. It would have been a sort of denial that I am part of it, and a sort of denial of its significance. Both it and I would have been diminished by my absence. Only I would have been aware of that diminishment, but it would have been real nonetheless. Only I--and God, of course.
So I went. And I did hear "Ashes." And I thought bad thoughts about it. But it was sung during the imposition of ashes, and the closing hymn, which I can't remember the name or words of now, had a melody by Bach, and that was what remained in my head when the Mass was over.
I've noticed that some Protestant groups have taken up the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. This is a good thing in general. Some Protestants have always done it, I guess, but not most. Definitely not the Methodist church where I grew up. But I have some reservations about what one local Protestant church was doing this week: offering drive-through ashes. That church is on the same street as mine, and when I passed it on the way I thought I saw a sign to that effect, but wasn't sure I'd read it right. On the way back I took a closer look, and yes, that's what they were doing: the sign said "Drive-In Ashes," and there were two men at a table in the parking lot. Can't say it's wrong, exactly, but somehow it doesn't seem quite in the spirit of the thing. I assume they had a service in the church building itself.
And we've had another massacre at a school. If anyone reads this ten years from now he probably won't know which one I'm referring to, which is a pretty sad commentary. The usual argument about gun control immediately started, with the usual proportion of heat (lots) to light (very little). I've sometimes considered putting together a page of basic facts about guns and gun crime in the U.S.A. with the intention of trying to get the misinformation out of the way so that a rational discussion could take place. If I ever do that, it shouldn't be on an occasion like this one, when even to use words like "rational" and "fact" only opens one up to the charge of heartlessness. Maybe I should say "productive" instead of "rational." It seems to me that the strength of one's belief that there is a clear solution to this problem is in inverse proportion to one's knowledge of it.
But here's one observation, made from a step or two back from the detailed argument about what should or should not be done: Americans seem to have a very hard time dealing with the fact that some serious problems do not have "solutions" that can be attained if we feel very very passionately that they must be solved, and can pass laws saying that it should be so. It just goes against the American grain to say "Well, this is a terrible problem, and there doesn't seem to be a way to get rid of it." If any of us had been a witness to the ravages of alcoholism among the poor at the turn of the 20th century, we'd no doubt have a better understanding of how Prohibition came about. To many very well-intentioned people it seemed necessary, the only humane and reasonable response to a scourge. More recently, we've attempted to handle the drug problem in a similar way. We see the results of that. There's a sardonic remark circulating: "Let's make guns illegal. That's how we solved the drug problem."
Sadly, once again during Mardi Gras a certain number of people were trampled and devoured by dragons.