The liturgical year rolls around. In each of the 13 years that have passed since I came back to the Catholic Church, I have lived the Church’s year like a shadow of the secular year. Sometimes the liturgical year extends far ahead, sometimes just behind the rest of the Western world’s holidays and anniversaries. The liturgical year starts in late November or early December with four weeks of Advent. Then the Christmas season extends from Christmas Eve to Epiphany during the first week in January. We relax into a few weeks of Ordinary Time. Then Ash Wednesday, which falls anywhere between February 8 and March 8, marks the beginning of Lent.
According to Church teaching and tradition, Lent is a 40-day period of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving designed to mirror Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Catholics give up something they like — a favorite food, a favorite TV show — to remind themselves of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the Church asks the faithful to fast and abstain from eating meat. It’s not a real fast. You can still eat two small meals and one almost normal-sized one. For all the other Fridays during Lent, Catholics don’t need to fast, but they do need to abstain. I remember that when I came back into the Church, I thought “fast and abstinence” meant Catholics couldn’t eat or have sex on those days. “No,” a friend corrected me. “You just can’t eat meat.”
At 10:00 this Mardi Gras, I sat on the couch in my family room eating Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked ice cream directly from the little round carton and watching the revelers on TV get drenched in the Gaslamp. My husband Jack sat beside me polishing off a bag of Ruffles and a pint of Coffee Heath Bar Crunch. We always give up junk food during Lent, so we were ridding the house of any untoward temptation.
“What else are you going to do for Lent?” Jack asked as he licked the last creamy drips from the back of his spoon.
“I think I’m going to try to take the kids to daily Mass,” I answered.
“That’s great,” Jack said.
I remember the first time I went to daily Mass during Lent. Jack and I had one child. Rebecca was 15 months old. Every day at lunchtime, I drove from our house in Clairemont to Our Lady of the Rosary in Little Italy. Jack worked near the church and met us most days. I remember the way Rebecca slid around on the polished wooden pew in her tights and little dresses. I remember bringing books and snacks and quiet toys to keep her occupied. I remember thinking, “This is so hard. I can barely concentrate on what the priest is saying. I hope God appreciates what an incredible sacrifice I’m making by being here every day.”
As the weeks of Lent wore on, I started worrying less about Rebecca’s little toddler noises, the whispered questions. One day at a particularly crowded Mass — it may have been Good Friday — Jack lifted Rebecca up to his shoulder as we sat waiting for Mass to begin. Rebecca spied a large, framed photograph that hung above the church’s double front doors. “I see the Pope,” she called out gleefully. Jack and I smiled as a quiet chuckle rippled through the crowd.
What I remember most, looking back now, is the sense of awe and quiet and peace that settled over me every day as Rebecca paged through her books and I listened to the readings and repeated the familiar rhythms of the Mass responses. After Easter, I stopped going to daily Mass. I found myself missing that little oasis in the middle of the day.
In the nine years that have passed since that Lent, Jack and I have had four more children. We moved from Clairemont to San Marcos. There have been times we’ve gone to daily Mass. During Rebecca’s first year of elementary school, we hustled her and her younger sisters Angela and Lucy into the van every morning. We strapped baby Johnny into his car seat and drove the three miles to church. Rebecca sat or stood or knelt in her plaid jumper and white blouse with the Peter Pan collar. Instead of reading books, she followed the readings and spoke the responses. Angela and Lucy paged through picture books. Johnny made enormous, unearthly noises as I held him close and he nursed under a blanket.
Jack’s schedule changed. Johnny became a toddler and wanted to wander up and down the church’s aisles rather than sit in a pew. We started going to church only on Sundays and holy days of obligation. When Benjamin followed Johnny two and a half years ago, making it to church even on Sunday sometimes presented a challenge. We always went to Mass. We just went in shifts sometimes. Or Jack and I took turns walking Benjamin around outside or taking Johnny to the bathroom while the girls squirmed in their seats.
Which is why Jack seemed surprised but pleased when I told him I was going to try taking the kids to daily Mass.