Having been received into the Catholic Church on the Feast of Christ the King four months ago, I am experiencing the season of Lent for the first time as a Catholic.
My confirmation and first communion were more than I expected. I anticipated that it would be a declaration of my Faith, but I was surprised by how much it highlighted my Faith in the context of others. My Faith was celebrated by my parish priest and my sponsor, my family and my congregation. There’s a sense of community in celebrating with others, being known to them, welcomed by them, sharing the greeting of peace with them and receiving Holy Communion with them.
This community is now preparing for Easter. Although I always celebrated Easter, being a highlight of the Christian calendar, I don’t think I ever really prepared for it before. For me, Easter was always about the resurrection and celebrating new life. The Easter hymns are among my favourites and for me Easter has been about singing them and celebrating. Whilst that may be true, I’m now much more conscious of the fact that Lent is a time to prepare for Easter.
Lent was a familiar idea to me, but I was never really sure if it was about giving up chocolate or giving up swearing. Was it about self-denial or self-improvement? After marking the beginning of Lent by attending Mass on Ash Wednesday, I might have a clearer idea.
At Mass on Ash Wednesday, I absorbed the peaceful quiet space in the cathedral, the voices raised in song, the light in the faces of the parishioners who held hands while they recited the Lord’s prayer, the gentle guidance of families teaching their children what the ritual required of them, and the solemn direction that accompanied the sign of the cross the priest traced on my forehead.
As the cathedral filled with the faithful, we stole a period of tranquillity from our busy days and a moment of reflection from our busy minds. It’s such a reflective place; full of light and icons of modest beauty. The air feels fresher − or perhaps we’re simply reflective enough to notice we’re breathing it.
As we sang the response to the psalm, I was struck by how often Mercy is referenced in our worship. We observed the Year of Mercy in 2016. We seek mercy when we sing the Kyrie Eleison. We echoed it in the response to the psalm “Be merciful, O Lord…”. It’s a shame that I can’t do justice in print to the beautiful voice of the parishioner who led our response to the psalm in song. I can still hear her crystal clear tone ringing in the stillness of the cathedral.
The Lord’s Prayer must be one of the best known texts throughout the world − so much so that the pew card simply says “Our Father…” and trusts the reader knows the rest. So, during this prayer, I finally lift my eyes from the pew card and take in the congregation. Some of them pray with open uplifted palms. Some of them hold hands. They seem so free, engaging in the prayer with their hands as well as their voices.
As we approached the altar to receive the ashes, children followed the example of their families… mostly. Some needed a little prodding, nodding, smiling, guiding. Having been recently confirmed, I’m still following the example of the congregation myself. It takes a while to get the hang of when to sit and when to stand and when to kneel. There’s always the possibility that no one notices when I get it wrong?
At the altar, the priest placed ashes sprinkled with holy water on the foreheads of those who came forward, saying to each “Repent and believe in the gospel.” I’m not sure quite what I expected him to say at that solemn moment, but that wasn’t it. The message was “repent and believe” not “self-denial” and not “self-improvement” ‒ at least not directly. I always understood that repentance was about being sorry and promising not to repeat our errors, so I guess there’s some self-improvement in that.
Perhaps the other parishioners who attended Mass with me on Ash Wednesday will remember it differently. Perhaps their focus was different. I’m fond of the idea that Mass is like a pantry. Both feed and sustain us. A pantry stores a variety of things to eat, which we select according to our cravings. In the same way Mass is brimming with sacred food which we absorb according to our spiritual needs. What we absorb differs because our spiritual needs are unique to each of us.
With this in mind, I am preparing for Easter. I’m still looking forward to celebrating and singing my favourite hymns. I’m still wondering if my family will be able to squeeze in a little time away together. Perhaps I will attend my first Way of the Cross ceremony. My days are still busy, but I am reflecting on what it means to be a part of my congregation and wondering what is waiting for me in the pantry.