Friday, March 11, 2011

Ash Wednesday: Emily attends Mass

Wednesday night, I went to Mass with my mother-in-law's boss.

I'd never been to Mass before. And I'd never spent time with my mother-in-law's boss (except for a baby shower we both attended).

I told Mom-in-law a few months ago that I was curious about Catholicism. She said her boss (and close friend) was a devout catholic, and she'd probably take me. So I got to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday.

First impressions:
  • Silence (no talking amongst the congregation before the service other than very low whispers)
  • Bright (all the lights were on)
  • Gold (lots of shiny stuff up front)
  • Candles (they stood for things, but I'm not sure what)
  • Respect (everybody knelt at the end of their pew before sitting)
  • Interactive (the congregation said stuff out loud in response to the priest)
  • Scripted (the whole year's readings and order of events is published in advance)
What a contrast to the protestant, evangelical mega-church I'm used to attending where the volume is loud, the lights are off, and the attendees are spectators in theater seating.

I didn't really understand what Ash Wednesday even meant. Here's what I learned: Ash Wednesday... one of Catholocisms' Holy Days of Obligation the first day of Lent 40 days before Easter.

Lent is about repentance, reflection, gratitude and contentment. The priest (who had an awesome Irish accent) said, "Before giving up typical things for lent (like candy, alcohol, overeating, etc), give up sin." He said by sacrificing habitual sins, the next 40 days can result in individual transformation.

The decor on stage inside the simple church building (built in 1902) was ornate and kingly. The front of the building (the "stage") looked like a throne room. I was curious about what all those features were called and why they were significant: the table where the priest prepared communion, the pillars and shelves and "backdrop" behind that, the three dimensional "last supper" artwork against the front piece, with clean-shaven Jesus and his disciples all mid-sentence, eating a meal from one loaf and one cup.

Everyone knelt on fold-out knee benches, touched their faces, crossed themselves, prayed silently with palms together. We looked like children learning to pray, exaggerated and earnest. I wasn't quite sure where all the genuflecting was directed. Life size statue-Jesus with an outstretched hand? Small gold-Jesus hanging on a cross? Little box where the sacrament went after communion (kind of crypt-like)?

In the middle of the service, we made two single-file lines and the priest put ash on our foreheads, in a little cross. Every time he did this, he repeated "Turn from sin and follow the gospel." He was fast, reaching for the first person in each line in quick succession as we filed past him. I liked the rhythm of his voice, varying only slightly in cadence. "TURNfromsin and FOLLowthegospel."

When it was time for communion, I stayed in my seat and felt awkward. I didn't know the rules about communion for catholics, but thought it was best to err on the side of caution. Plus, everyone was sipping from the same goblet. That seemed archaic. Granted, little individual plastic cups with less than an ounce of grape juice (in the communion services I'm familiar with) hardly seemed reverent in comparison.

After being given bread and wine, people came back to their seats and prayed. When I knelt to pray like everyone else, I was crunched between the pews. I almost kicked over the kneeling bench in the row behind me. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore all the temptation of watching people receive the elements, which felt like spying. I had to consciously visualize the Jesus familiar to me: a Keith Green, parable-telling, bearded hippie character. Much more casual. He seemed inappropriate in that setting. I pictured Jesus as an earthy guy, using things like wheat and plowed dirt and sheep to illustrate his points.

I realized the church setting represented the respect and investment of the clergy and congregation. The building we were in  wasn't supposed to recreate Jesus' surroundings to make him feel at home (unless that was meant to look heavenly). It was a sign of respect for someone loved and admired. It made me wonder about the laid-back, "seeker-friendly," coffee-serving comfort zone of the church I'm used to.

My mother in law's boss talked about her faith very easily. Her Catholicism was an aspect of her life she had no difficulty describing. I liked that. What made the service special was the sincerity of her faith. She said finding this church felt like coming home. I could see the same appreciation and relaxed reverence in others, too. Nothing felt forced.

It made me want to cry, for the absence of that kind of contentment in my own life, and out of gratitude. Christian faith lives on, even though my own has been long neglected. The rhythm of the service (standing, kneeling, praying, singing, listening, responding) was unfamiliar to me, but I could see the appeal of the repetition. I recognized that the significance of each portion of the service depended on the participants, not the ritual itself.

Next time I attend my own church, I'm going to remember that what I get out of a service depends on what I bring to it: cynicism, criticism, and my silent stream of editorial comments don't lend themselves well to faith-building. What I saw at Mass was dedication, buy-in, investment of time, receptivity.

That's what I want, whether the setting is casual, "Shake hands with someone you didn't drive here with!" or liturgical, "Peace be with you."

And also with you.


  1. GREAT post. I went to a Catholic service once in college for a religion class (we had to attend a "high" and "low" church service and then write about it) and also an Anglican service a couple years ago. I love the imagery and the reverence there, but all the ritual and stoicism makes me uncomfortable. Maybe that's a good thing, I dunno.
    I'm still searching and longing and seeking too, and trying so hard to leave my cynicism and critical comments at home. So difficult.