Jonathan Liedl, Guest Contributor
Earlier this month, I was reading the Brainerd Daily Dispatch, the paper of record in my neck of northern Minnesota, when something caught my eye. The students of Crosby-Ironton High School (admittedly my alma mater’s dreaded archrivals) would be presenting “The Feaste of Eastertide,” an annual celebration of “Easter, love, and spring” replete with live music, performers in authentic period costumes, and a five-course dinner. I read the description of the event with great interest, the likelihood that I would attend increasing with every reference to jesters and dessert flambé. Gatherings such as these are few and far between in Crow Wing County and I thought it an appropriately exuberant celebration of the most important day on the entire liturgical calendar.
However, my enthusiasm was extinguished when I realized the date on which the event was to be held: March 24. The Feaste of Eastertide, this joyous occasion, ostensibly held to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ and His atonement for our sins, was scheduled for Palm Sunday. What had been an eagerness to attend was replaced by disappointment—and disapproval. Was it really appropriate to hold a mirthful feast, undoubtedly brimming with “alleluias” and savory dishes, during the height of Lent, a solemn liturgical season that we are instructed to observe with penance and self-denial? Why were the organizers of the event seemingly incapable of waiting for Easter Day to arrive before they celebrated it?
Perhaps I should have expected nothing more. Our society has a deep-seated compulsion for premature partying, often throwing more celebratory zeal into the prelude of a holiday than the actual holy day itself. Consider Christmas—the Christmas season starts as soon as the last piece of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie has been scarfed down, quickly devolving into an excessive splurge of shopping, decorating and merriment-making. Christmas parties, concerts and movie marathons all begin well before December 25 rolls around. When the big day finally arrives, many are too stressed or tired to actually enjoy the festivities. And when all the presents have been opened and all the requisite house-calls have been made, down come the lights, out goes the tree and it’s immediately on to the next Big Thing. Our need for hasty gratification leads to an inability to appreciate something beyond its high point, depriving our holidays of any lasting significance and leaving us unsatisfied, wanting more.
In thinking about the root cause of this phenomenon, a corollary comes to mind. In general, Americans celebrate a holiday in very much the same way they approach marriage. Like Christmas or Easter, modern society hasn’t (yet) rendered marriage as something irrelevant or passé; most Americans still plan on getting hitched at some point and, if the burgeoning niche of marriage-themed reality TV shows is any indicator, weddings are still considered important life events. However, the “celebration of marriage,” if you will, begins long before the couple exchanges their vows. Practices that were once considered exclusive to marriage, such as co-habitation, sexual intimacy, and procreation, are freely engaged in by unmarried couples with greater and greater frequency. The fact that some of these unwed couples may very well intend to tie the knot down the road is besides the point; what’s critical is that, just as
one doesn’t need to patiently endure denying oneself throughout Lent before holding an Eastertide celebration, a couple no longer needs to wait until they’ve married to engage in the kinds of acts that were once considered inconceivable outside of marriage.
Upstaged by this flurry of pre-marital physical, social and emotional intimacy, contemporary marriage has been deprived of its distinctiveness. The line between a long-term couple and one that is married is blurred, with often just a ceremony and a wedding band serving as the distinguishing indicators of who has “sealed the deal” and who has not. A wedding day is still a momentous occasion, still an extravagant affair to which hundreds of family and friends are invited and for which thousands of dollars are shelled out; this is not because of what comes after the marriage ceremony, but because of what has already preceded it. In many cases, contemporary marriage is nothing more than “making it official,” formally recognizing a relationship that has already been defined, its possibilities already actualized.
The problem is that this version of marriage promises nothing beyond the wedding day. It has nothing to tell us of a shared life together after the couple exchanges vows and completes their honeymoon. Like the way our society treats December 25, this conception of marriage is merely the culmination of a great deal of activity, not a distinct celebration in its own right that implies that something truly unique is taking place. There is no transformation, no revelation of new possibilities. At best the relationship will remain static. More likely, however, it will be like the day after Christmas—comparatively dull and defined by drudgery. The fruits of the relationship have already been harvested, the highlight reel has already been made. Dissatisfaction, disillusionment and restlessness set in; such is the reality of many marriages in America today.
Fortunately, the Catholic Church’s approach to both matrimony and the celebration of holidays is far superior to that of our modern world in all its enlightened, liberated glory. Informing this perspective is the radical notion that one prepares for a significant event not by indulging in a taste of what’s to come, but by refraining from consumption and pursuing purification; by cleansing the palate, as it were.
Take, for instance, Catholic practices in the weeks leading up to Christmas and Easter. Whereas modern society demands that we have our bedazzled tree up by the first of December and that we decorate our houses and places of business with gaudy eggs and bunnies immediately after the shamrocks of St. Patrick’s Day have been taken down, Catholicism imposes upon us the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent. Asceticism, penance, and interior preparation define these periods, fostering a disposition of reflection and restrained anticipation. The self-denial intrinsic to Advent and Lent make the celebration of the holidays they precede far more meaningful, joyful—and lasting. From the Catholic perspective, Christmas Day and the Easter Triduum aren’t the end of a term, the final, bleating note in an already tired song. Instead, in a sudden burst of Handel and “hallelujahs,” they commence liturgical seasons entirely
devoted to celebrating and perpetuating the truths they embody.
The Catholic treatment of matrimony is nearly identical. Eschewing contemporary society’s compulsion to engage in marital acts well before nuptials, a Catholic relationship prior to marriage is marked by abstinence and restraint. Expectancy is not lacking; rather it is tempered and constrained by an acknowledgement that waiting is worthwhile. As a result, a Catholic marriage is not a mere formality, a round of pomp and circumstance to officialize what has already been happening. Instead, it is a sacrament that truly marks the beginning of something entirely new, the transformation of two individuals into one flesh. This understanding of marriage offers something contemporary practices cannot: a joyful, purposeful vision of the married life that extends far beyond the wedding night.
Marriage and holidays are only two instances of a truly disturbing trend that has engulfed Western society. Manifested in everything from the demise of social decorum and table manners to our economy’s overreliance on money we don’t actually have, modernity encourages people to shrug off natural limitations and to indulge their every whim and fancy in a frenzy of instant, premature gratification. This is a deep-seated and serious problem that is as unsustainable in the long run as it is morally corrupting in the present.
However, if the Church’s approach to marriage and liturgical celebrations is any indication, our Church is an incredible resource of invaluable advice, an institution that continues to provide timeless solutions to many of the seemingly new problems we face. Let’s heed our Church’s wisdom regarding waiting as we approach Easter, not only by fasting and practicing penance in the days leading up to the Triduum, but also by celebrating with full vigor the joys of the Paschal Mystery, on Easter Sunday and throughout the liturgical season.
Jonathan Liedl is 2011 graduate of Notre Dame and a former Irish Rover editor. He currently manages “The Purposeful Polis,” a web-channel devoted to Catholic political thought and a part of Ethika Politika, the online journal of the Center for Morality in Public Life. Check out the website today and, if compelled, contact Jonathan at email@example.com to learn how to contribute.