Joy & foreboding

Thanks to juxtaposition, the Christian feasts and fasts, both Western and Eastern, have not only kept the observant on their toes. The liturgical schedule also teaches, by increments, as all of the liturgy has been doing (or, “had” for the cynical) these last many centuries. The juxtaposition of “Mardi Gras” with “Ash Wednesday” is meant to be abrupt. Not meant, perhaps, by designing liturgists, but by the believers themselves.

Shrove Tuesday was, in its ramifications I think, an invention of the people. We will have a big party and joyously clear away the clutter from our barnyard lives; then we will face the morrow with ash on our foreheads. Both adventures are fully Catholic, “in spirit.” But one would be meaningless without the other. It is not merely cynical, but impoverishing, to take only the one we prefer.

We do this “secularly” (i.e. profanely) at the New Year. On the Eve we drink merrily and pig out. We used to extend this with indoor garden parties, to a levée upon the next day, up here in the frozen North. The governor or mayor would be waiting for us. That seemed too formidable and disciplined, however, so now we just do the headaches, quietly privatized — those of us who were young and animate.

My own recollection of having drunk Southern Comfort too copiously of a Near Year’s, for the first and very last time, comes back to me after half-a-century. I am still trying to get the taste out of my mouth. I am still trying to account for the girl in whose strange bed I awoke next day — we were both fully clothed I must assure gentle reader — and who possibly hadn’t been my only mistake. I mustn’t have been thinking ahead. I don’t actually remember what I was thinking. My only defence was being a teenager. I knew immediately that it wouldn’t work.

But on New Year’s Eve, thought of the morrow is generally “abstract.” Such items as Resolutions are, as most of us realize, “for the record.” We might label them “fake news” in advance. We know ourselves well enough not to believe them. As Mister Wilde said, “I can withstand anything except temptation.” We forgot to anticipate, how our Resolutions would be enforced.

Ash Wednesday is, for the faithful Western Christian, not a joke, however. It is, to the believer in Christ and His Church, scarily specific. No matter what one’s capacity for pancakes and sausages, we know what is coming. There will be forty days of it — morning, afternoon, and night. This is what I mean by “foreboding.” To one of saintly disposition, there is joy in this, too: in the simplicity and purification; in the looking forward to Ends. This disposition does not come naturally to me, however.

There are moments, perhaps, when I feel that my appetites are conquered. This is a ruse of the Devil; and one of his cleverest at that. Imagine one’s subsequent surprise, when the double-dose of temptation arrives, and one has neglected to request divine help in facing it down. Or alternatively, one was a humble Christian, and cautious about playing the hero. We have learnt to try without the expectation of success, and therefore without boasting, even to ourselves. For how many times have we failed?

Hence the self-knowledge, never to be abandoned, in our preparation for the annual fight with the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. We will try to accomplish what seems within our modest powers, assisted by a Lord who knows that we are toddlers, learning, as it were, to walk. Let’s get that right, for now. But some day we will run — into His arms.