Of Catholics and capybaras

Capybara_harness

 

Q. A bunch of my friends are trying to organize a blog carnival where people can show pictures of themselves eating salad while looking sadly at a snapshot they’ve taped to the balsamic vinegar cruet, showing their sponsored African child, who will be getting an extra $12 from saved grocery bills this month. They’re calling it The 100% Represent and Repent Lent Event 2015 Y’All, and I’m fairly sure they are turning a profit in some way. How can they live with themselves?

Read the rest at the Register. 

Oh, the Lents you can Lent!

Bruegel_Lent

Not only do we set the parameters for what we give up (sugar in coffee? A second cup of coffee?  All the coffee?), but we decide what kind of thing we want to give up (or take on) — and why. Here are a few broad categories of ways to observe the penitential season. One or the other may be more spiritually fruitful for you, but none of them is really wrong . . .

 

Read the rest at the Register.

***

Next Year in Jerusalem

Have you taught your children that, while Christmas is very important, it’s really Easter that’s the greatest feast of the year? Do they buy it?

When I was little, this point of doctrine was obvious: All during Holy Week, my father could be heard practicing the Exsultet to chant at the Easter vigil, as my mother fried and ground up liver and onions in preparation for the Passover seder. The fragrant schmaltzy steam of the chicken soup, the palm leaves, bags of jelly beans for Easter Sunday and the boxes of jellied fruit slices for the seder—these were all equally essential for Holy Week. We drooled over the growing heaps of luscious Passover food as we suffered the final pangs of Lenten sacrifices. My mother covered her head to bless the candles at the start of the seder, and then a few hours later, hovered over us in the pew to save us from singeing our hair on the Easter candles. I can’t imagine eating leftover gefilte fish without a chocolate bunny on the side; and I can’t imagine hearing “Christ our light!” without echoes of “Dayenu!” – “It would have been enough!” still lingering, both exultant prayers of thanksgiving to the God who always gives more than we deserve.

You might be pardoned for imagining some kind of schizophrenic clash of cultures in my house, but that’s not how it was. My parents did struggle to synthesize the incongruities between Catholicism and Judaism (and for a hilarious read, check out my mother’s account of interfaith communications). My parents were raised secular Jews, and went through a long and strange exodus through the desert together, and eventually converted to Christianity—and then, when I was about 4, to Catholicism.

But for us kids, there was no incongruity: Growing up Hebrew Catholics just meant having much more FUN on Easter than anyone else. My Christian friends wore straw hats, ate jelly beans, and maybe dyed eggs if their mothers could abide the mess. We, on the other hand, whooped it up for an entire weekend as we prepared for and celebrated the Passover seder, the ceremonial feast which Jesus ate with his disciples at the Last Supper. At our seder, which we held on Holy Saturday, there was chanting and clapping, giggling over the mysterious and grisly ceremonial roasted egg and horseradish root, glass after glass of terrible, irresistible sweet wine,

special silver and china that only saw the light of day once a year, pillows for the chairs so we could “recline,” and the almost unbearable sweetness as the youngest child asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

It was different because, every single year on that night, there were laughter and tears. The laughter was always more: I waited with bated breath for my father, after drinking his third or fourth ceremonial glass of wine, to trip over the Psalm and say, “What ails thee, o mountains, that you skip like rams? And o ye hills, like lung yams?” And then there are the tears, when we remember the slaying of the first born, and a drop of wine slips from our fingertips onto the plate.

Most Catholics are familiar with the idea that Moses prefigured Christ: Baby Moses was spared from Pharaoh’s infanticide, as baby Jesus was spared from Herod’s; Moses rescued his people from slavery, as Christ rescues us all from sin and death; the angel of death passed over the houses whose doors were marked with the blood of the sacrificial lamb, just as death passes over the souls of those marked with the sign of baptism. Moses brought the Jews on a generation-long journey through the desert, during which God showed constant mercy and forgiveness, and the people demonstrated constant faithlessness and ingratitude—a journey which is mirrored in the lives of everyone. And Moses eventually brought the people within sight of the promised land of Canaan, as Christ has promised He will lead us to the gates of Heaven.

I will always remember my father pausing in the middle of the ceremony, and holding up the broken afikomen matzoh to the light of the candles. When he had the attention of all the children he would ask, “Do you see the light, shining through the holes? Do you see it?

It is pierced, just like Jesus’ hands, feet and sides were pierced. And do you see the stripes? Just like Jesus was striped by the whip of the Romans.” And then we would replace the matzoh in the middle compartment of a silken pouch. This special pouch held three sheets of matzoh (a Trinity?)—and the middle one would be hidden away (as if in a tomb?). Until it was taken out and consumed, we couldn’t have dessert. All the sweets that were waiting in the other room—the chocolate and honey sponge cake, the fruit slices, the nuts and blonde raisins, the halvah and the macaroons—all of these had to wait until that middle piece was found and found (resurrected?) again.

But what always stopped me in my tracks is something my father discovered one year. Imagine, he told us, the Hebrews in their homes, painting their doorpost and lintel with the blood of the lamb as the Lord commanded. They would raise their arm to brush the blood on the top of the door, and then down again to dip again into the blood; and then up to the left, to mark the post on one side, and then to the right … does this sound familiar?

Act it out: up, down, left, right.  It’s very possible that, thousands of years before Calvary, the children of God were already making the sign of the cross.

Make of it what you will. At our house, what we made of it was that God loves us, has always loved us, and always will love us. “I have been young, and I have grown old, and I have never seen the righteous man forsaken or his children wanting for bread” (Ps 37:25). We are all the chosen people, and God speaks to us each in our own language, through our own traditions.

And I believe that he laughs and weeps along with us when we say with a mixture of bitterness and hope at the end of the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

————-
[This post originally ran in Register in 2011 – re-posted at the request of several readers]

At the Register: Show Your Weasel Spirit Who’s Boss

Ten tips for finishing Lent strong, you weasel!

At the Register: The Evil Child’s Guide to Holy Week

Parents say “Holy Week”; kids hear “Whatcha got?”

At the Register: Why we can’t have baptisms during Lent

Hope this helps.

At the Register: Beyond Ashes

In which I heroically refrain from making fun of bad hymns and instead suggest some good ‘uns for Lent.

At the Register: Allow me to inspire you this Lent

I can be helpful.

Lenten Rookie Mistakes

[This post originally ran, in a slightly different form, in the National Catholic Registerin February of 2013.]

____________________________________________________________________________

PIC ashes on forehead

 

I feel like I can’t walk ten feet without bumping into an enthusiastic new convert, which is delightful, and so encouraging!  Welcome, everybody!  We papists have a little saying:  Venite intus; horribilis est! 

Heh.  Anyway, you may be looking forward to your first Lent with enthusiasm but some trepidation.  If so, you’re ahead of the game:  it should be something to get excited about.  Lent can be a wonderful source of grace.  But as such, it can be a real mine field of screw-ups, especially for rookies.  Here are some typical rookie mistakes during Lent:

Giving Up All The Things!!!  Don’t forget:  even though it’s Lent, you still have to live the rest of your life.  So it’s probably not wise to take on such a complicated set of obligations and observances that you will need to hire a monk to follow you around, reminding you that you have exactly four minutes to make supper or earn a living before you’re due for your next spiritual reading, or  to pray anther five decades of the rosary, volunteer another half hour at the soup kitchen, say a blessing before, during, and after sneezing, and put a fresh set of dried peas in your shoes, all on four hours of sleep without a pillow and after a breakfast consisting of half a prune.  Just pick one or two things that you can reasonably stick with, or you will burn out and/or drop dead.

Giving up the thing that makes you bearable  Lent is about you doing sacrifices, not making everybody else suffer while they endure your enduring your sacrifice.  If your family sits you down 48 hours into Lent and presents you with a court order demanding that you start smoking or drinking coffee again, then have mercy and listen to them.

Leaving Loopholes As I’m prone to explain shoutily to my lazy, rotten kids, “That’s not cleaning, that’s just moving the mess around!”  You’re not allowed to tidy up your bed by shoving all your junk under the bed.  In the same way, it doesn’t really benefit you much to give up Facebook if you’re suddenly going to become a champion-level Twitterer.  Or if you gave up chocolate, you get no points for diving head first into a vat of caramel.  Substituting toothpicks for cigarettes, or water for beer, is a real penance; substituting YouTube for Netflix, not so much.

Waiting until the last minute for confession  You may think you’re getting the most out of your Lenten Experience by doing one final purge during Holy Week.  This is a horrible mistake.  Unless you want to be on line forever and ever, or unless your priest shows signs that he would like some extra penance by being in that box morning, noon, and night, do try to get to confession before the last minute!  Ideally, you should get to confession more than once during Lent, anyway.  And of course, if you haven’t gotten around to it, later is better than never.  But be aware that many priests do not hear confessions on Good Friday or Holy Saturday.  There’s some dispute over whether or not they’re permitted to hear confessions on those days; but for many overworked priests, there’s simply no time, with all the preparations they must make for the Triduum.

Getting cute about it  The standard observations are standard for a reason.  I know it’s fun to be creative, but it’s kind of obnoxious to give up — I don’t know, adjectives, or clothes that match, or foods with the letter “r” in them.  It might actually work out to be a difficult penance, but come on.   No need to reinvent the wheel.  If you’re a naturally creative person, consider it your penance to bow to the ordinary, and do what everyone else is doing for once.

Getting overly somber about it Yes, it’s a penitential season, when we focus, like no other time of year, on the ugliness of sin, and on the suffering and sorrows Our Lord took on for our sake.  It makes perfect sense to curtail parties and frivolities until after Lent (it’s only 40 days!), and to make our daily lives take on a penitential tone which is unmistakably different from the rest of the year.  But that doesn’t mean you need to quit smiling, or that we can’t enjoy being with friends and family, or listening to the first robin sing.  We’re not Calvinists or Jansenists or any other “ist” that makes us quit being human.

Not getting back on that horse  If you fail, that doesn’t mean you’ve picked the wrong penance, or that you’re incapable of doing penance.  It means you’re a human being.  Duh.  That’s why we need Lent.  Yes, you can back away from penances that turn out to be really disastrous; but don’t quit just because you fail.  God likes it when we try to become holier, but He loves it when we mess up, repent, and try again.  As Jen Fulwiler has pointed out, Lent really starts about halfway through, when the novelty has worn off and you still have to keep on sticking with your dumb old, boring old, purifying old penance.

After reading this list of don’t and more don’ts, do you feel a little taken aback — a little less confident about your powers to turn yourself into a better person?  Are you starting to think that there’s really no way you can make up for your sins on your own, and that you’re going to need ten boatloads of grace from the Holy Spirit to even get through the day, much less forty days straight?

Ah!  Now we’re getting somewhere.

At the Register: Reading Suggestions for Lent

Sixteen great books I’ve read or mean to read for Lent.