Which Masses are the best attended? You might say Christmas Eve or the Easter Vigil. In some cases, that could be true. However, as any parish leader can tell you, right up there at the top of the list of well-attended Masses are Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday isn’t even a holy day of obligation, yet it is very popular. People start calling some parishes — and the diocese — to get Mass times for Ash Wednesday right after the New Year starts.
A person I know — who is perhaps a bit cynical about it — noted that these two days are days when people “get something for free.” Ashes and palms. Well, palms chronologically come first, since they are burnt for ashes the following year.
You can take those bright, green — and free — palms home and keep them all year. Your parish has probably already collected your old, dried and yellow palms to burn this coming week in preparation for Ash Wednesday. Also, since palms are sacramentals — because they have been blessed and prayed over — they need to be disposed of reverently, such as by burning.
If you receive ashes, you can wear that free, black smudge on your forehead all day — sometimes getting loose ash in your eyes as a bit of a bonus. If you look in a mirror while on a bathroom break, you’ll see it and will be reminded that Lent has begun.
But is that really why you come to Mass on Ash Wednesday? Or Palm Sunday? To get something for free?
In fact, why do you come to any Mass?
Maybe you’re there to grasp and hold fast to the word of God, as Paul says in the second reading from the first letter to the Corinthians. Maybe you come to give thanks in the sight of the angels, as the psalm response reminds us. However, you probably aren’t looking to receive a burning coal — free or not — to touch your lips, as happened to Isaiah.
On the other hand, maybe you come for the food — both for soul and for body.
In this last Sunday before the season of Lent begins, we hear a Gospel that reminds us that the Lord gave people lots of things for free: healing, teaching, parables. At his first meeting with Simon Peter, he gave Peter and his fellow fishermen so many fish that their nets were breaking. Imagine how you would feel if you got a boatload of fish at the end of a long, fruitless work day.
The fish — which were also part of the first eucharistic meals in the early church — remind us of the most important thing the Lord gives to us for free: his body and blood.
And he does so at every Mass you attend, whether or not you get ashes or palms with that.
Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of multiple books.