Easter Sunday morning, the church and the parking lot will be packed. Extra chairs will line the aisles and spill out into the narthex. Even with all the extra seating, the Sunday Masses will be standing room only. It’s a sight that makes me incredibly happy, even if that’s not the prevailing opinion on social media.
For the past few days, I have read the snarky comments about the Christmas and Easter Catholics (the Chreasters) on Facebook and Twitter. Their presence will be bemoaned by regular Mass attendees who find parking places rare and their usual pew spots occupied. I can sympathize with their aggravation at having to arrive an hour early to the church only to still end up in the last row of the folding chairs. It seems like being regular and faithful should count for something, and these fair-weather Mass-goers should have to scoot over and make room. But I remember so clearly when I was one of them, and I rejoice that they are here at all.
There were quite a few years when I was an atheist-leaning agnostic, and I studiously avoided anything that looked like church, except on Christmas and Easter. For some reason, the smells, bells, and music of Mass were inextricably intertwined with how I celebrated these holidays. While I didn’t believe in what they meant, I loved the music of the choirs and the pageantry and spectacle of Mass. I became a connoisseur of which parishes offered the loveliest liturgy, and went sight-seeing at Midnight Mass and the Easter Vigil.
As I sat in the pews, the ritual of it would envelop me with the familiar comfort of coming home. It was the same contentment as a family dinner where the menu is filled with familiar comfort foods, the stories are a beloved tradition, and it smells like you remember. Long before I was shoved to my knees and back into God’s arms, the comfort of home was calling me back to the safe comfort of home.
I always felt a twinge of guilt, way back then, about taking up space that might belong to someone else. I was acutely aware of the fact that I didn’t actually belong. What was an agnostic doing in a Catholic Church anyway? Why was I there on the holiest days of the year? Weren’t those the days I least deserved to be there?
It’s only with the hindsight of years that I see how absolutely appropriate it was for prodigal me to arrive just in time for the Feast. The people were dressed in their finery, those who were faithful to Our Father, and here I was, a lost and wandering soul. While they grumbled and protested that I had been allowed into their choice spot in the pews. I took in the wonder of the banquet which had been prepared for us, and this return to the home I had left in a fit of rebellion would reach in and eventually thaw my hardened heart.
This Easter Season, let’s rejoice that the Chreasters have joined us in the pews. We don’t know what long and winding road has brought them to sit among us, or what personal struggles they have fought in order to be there. Let us rise ecstatic that our churches are filled to capacity, and that the brothers who were lost have found their way home. Even if it’s only for one short day.
Artwork: Return of the Prodigal by Guercino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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