By Frank Wessling
Put away the summer clothes, dig out the sweaters and jackets, find the rake, change the furnace filter, even think about a trip to enjoy the colors of early fall in woodlands north of us. These are seasonal rituals of life in the Midwest. We do them because life moves, changes, is dynamic, not static.
The cycle of seasons is obvious in Iowa. No one misses it; everyone must conform to it.
Not so obvious is the seasonal cycle of Catholic religious life.
We all know about Sunday Mass, how important it is to regularly join others who share our faith in this act of worship. Going to church becomes a weekly ritual. But apart from the buildup to Christmas and a burst of attention on Ash Wednesday and Easter, do many of us let the seasonal changes projected in the Gospel affect us?
They don’t force their way into our lives as a snowstorm does. We have to listen and be open to hearing. When we do, Christmas is not simply a story about Jesus being born in Bethlehem. What we hear at this time in the liturgy of the Mass tunes us in to the longing of all humanity, to our own longing, to walk securely with God. We hear in so many ways that God has always been with us, but now we will see this more clearly in Jesus. Pay attention, pay careful attention, to him.
When we listen all the time we notice that Easter exists not by itself but only with Lent. It is the triumph of life only after the corruption of sin has been taken away by sacrifice. Showing up in church on Easter is not enough. We must do Lent first in order to do Easter. Anything less is just for show.
And as we listen to the Gospel beyond Easter it dawns on us that we are now in the heart of the drama. Easter isn’t something that happened only to a historical Jesus in the past. It released the spirit of God so we can share in the intimate relationship of divine life. We can do what Jesus did as we join with others who believe in him. We become Christ, the anointed of God, led by the Spirit through history.
This sense of drama and seasonal emphasis may be missing for many Catholics because much of our religious formation focused on rules and rote prayer. We learned the externals of what good Catholics do and, for the most part, we try to do them. For most adults today the internal, personal life of faith pretty much came down to absorbing a sense of sin and what to do about it.
This is less true of young people, since the teaching and modeling of Catholicism in recent years has adopted a more biblical tone, with more emphasis on action in imitation of Jesus. The sense of sin is less the violating of rules or commands identified with the Church and more the violation of relationships and absence of love. These can still be spelled out in rules, but there is a clearer understanding that the point of sorrow and confession following these violations is reconciliation in the spirit of God.
Adults coming into the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) tend to understand the seasonal cycle of Christian life and its relational character. Their instruction and formation usually begins about this time of year and closely follows the lectionary, the book of Scripture readings used for Mass. They often come to know the faith, and become engaged in its drama, better than cradle Catholics.
Of course that can always be remedied by all of us being more conscious and attentive at Mass. Why not make that a part of the seasonal adjustment we’re doing these days?