Christmas. That’s right. Christmas. It’s just a few days before Ash Wednesday, but I swear there’s a method to my liturgical madness.
Mention Christmas two weeks after the day — heck, in some places, the day after the day — and you get a big nothing in return. Ancient history.
In the neighborhood grocery store, the decorations were going down and the boxed Valentines chocolates were going up by Dec. 26. And you couldn’t find a jingle bell or a “First Noel” on the oldies radio station that had been ginning up Christmas carols since All Saints Day.
I know the year — calendar and liturgical — moves on, and I have no quibble with that. But I confess that I miss the two months of public Christmas carnival prior to the day. As I mentioned to a friend, I get such a kick out of what it must do to the assorted nuts of the Freedom from Religion Foundation when they turn on the car radio and are greeted by the second verse of an explicitly faith-filled carol:
“Veil’d in flesh, the Godhead see; Hail, th’incarnate Deity: Pleased, as man, with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel! Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King!’”
You can’t buy that kind of rich theology and, bless us, unintended evangelization. During the pre-Christmas season, the secular culture sells stuff; we spread the Faith. And it works. One local parish here has the Knights of Columbus bus people back and forth from the nearby public high school lots because its parking can’t handle the huge overflow for Christmas Masses. Glory to the newborn King.
And then the trees go for recycling and the lights blink out one by one until that last holdout finally gives up the ghost after the NFL playoffs begin. All those television movies that promised a Christmas miracle and meaningful conversion seem worse than silly when late January rolls around and all that is left is the worthlessness of secular promises.
That’s the sadness of the secular Christmas. People think their lives will change, and it never does, unless and until they rediscover the faith that is behind it all. Secularism is rooted in ordinary stuff; faith celebrates eternal Truth. And the ordinary is so disappointing in comparison.
As Pope Francis so vividly put it in a recent interview, “humanity is wounded, deeply wounded. Either it does not know how to cure its wounds or it believes that it’s not possible to cure them.”
But there’s another day that pushes the message as well. If anything, the day is the very antithesis of secularism. I’m talking about Ash Wednesday.
I always think of downtown Pittsburgh on Ash Wednesday. A little church is standing room only with lines out the front door at noon Mass. The Pittsburgh Diocesan Pastoral Center next door distributes ashes for a couple of hours to a steady stream of souls. You wander around downtown in the afternoon and that black smudge is on so many foreheads, reminding us all that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And secular media is always there to cover it for the evening news.
Ash Wednesday is a moment of evangelization that is never missed. I’d be willing to bet that there are even more non- or faintly practicing Catholics wearing ashes than show-up at crowded Christmas Masses.
By January, Christmas is forgotten by the non-faithful. By Thursday morning, Ash Wednesday is forgotten by the non-faithful. But people have been touched somewhere. That Christmas carol stirred a soul somewhere; the cross of ashes became a moment of conversion’s grace somewhere.
Everything we do is evangelization. And sometimes we can trick the secular world into being our co-conspirators.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.