by Matthew Walther
Most of us are familiar with the idea of “Chreasters,” persons who attend Mass only at Christmas and Easter. I dislike this word, not only because it looks and sounds ugly but because it seems to me inaccurate or at least incomplete. Many parish priests, especially in large urban areas where there is a sizable lapsed Catholic population, will tell you that Ash Wednesday is, attendance-wise, their biggest day, the Super Bowl of the liturgical calendar.
It is difficult to say whether the same will be true this year, but a part of me hopes that churches on Wednesday will be teeming with what I have come to think of as “Chrashers.” There is something lovely about the idea of unaccustomed knees stiffening over antiseptic leather and half-familiar words being mumbled with that admixture of sheepishness and comfort familiar to any backslider.
I think there are at least two reasons why even those who neglect their Sunday obligation (which many bishops have had the good sense to restore in time for Lent) come to hear the hauntingly simple formula repeated and receive some token of it. The first is that at some level, for reasons that in many cases could not be articulated, those who are separated formally or otherwise from the visible body of believers repent of their sins and wish to declare this, even though, indeed perhaps especially because they have yet to arrive at a firm purpose of amendment.
Why ashes? This, I suspect, is bound up to some extent in the mystery of sacramentals. Even those who cannot receive absolution and Holy Communion (in my experience, Chrashers are in fact more likely than the average layperson to be aware of this) are free to partake of sacramentals, which are a vanishingly rare example of that well-known pleonasm “free gift” being entirely appropriate.
Sacramentals are messy things, not unlike human lives. Theologians tell us (in the words of the old Catholic Encyclopedia) that sacramentals “do not infallibly produce their effect”; indeed, what exactly their effect might be is a matter of some ambiguity. One often hears that while the Church is bound by the sacraments, God is not. What a finger dipped in holy water on a fumbling visit to a church during a moment of crisis or a forehead painted with cruciform dust reminds us is that between the clear visible river of the sacraments and the utterly mysterious (but at times indubitable) ocean of invisible grace which only God can bestow, there is yet another channel, flowing freely to all, without regard to our worthiness. The sacraments, instituted by Our Savior, outwardly promise what they effect; a sacramental betokens what it cannot quite promise.
This brings me to my second reason. Chrashers, who have fallen away from Her, long for the Church. They wish to belong to Her in a tangible way, a membership that announces itself to the world with stark and unmistakable signs. This is no bad thing. Notwithstanding our Lord’s warnings about the hypocrites of sad countenance, it seems to me that undue public religiosity ranks very low among the besetting sins of our age. In happier times one can imagine that dubious rewards awaited those wishing to be mistaken for observant Catholics; today such an ambition would be as bizarre in many parts of this country as wishing to be mistaken for the sort of person who collects eight-track tapes.
That this longing to proclaim the Gospel should take hold not amid the extraordinary joy of Easter but forty days prior, when the Church places before us the ephemerality of earthly life and the dust that awaits our mortal bodies, tells us a great deal about our hearts, not least the terrible judgement we rightly fear. It is a welcome contradiction of many prevailing superstitions; but for many it is also, one suspects, a yearning that is perilously close to giving way to the more prevalent mood in our society of quiet, half-acknowledged despair.
For these reasons I do not think that most of us should be inclined to judge Chrashers too harshly, lest we repeat the folly of the elder brother in our Lord’s parables The beginning of a great penitential season is as good a reminder as any of how far each of us has strayed from our Father’s house—and how gladly we will all be received should we choose to return, not as furtive door crashers but as His devoted sons.
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