I am convinced that the correct preposition between the words ‘life’ and ‘liturgy’ is ‘is’, not ‘and’: “life is liturgy”, rather than the suggestion that they are somehow two different things in the phrase “life and liturgy”. But, the reality for many people with overly busy lives means that parish engagement is limited to an hour or two on Sunday morning, plus the occasional other time in the week or days of the liturgical year. It is no wonder then that Lent, as a discrete and limited time, fits the desire to do more. Ecumenically, for many of our worshiping communities, this takes the form of extra programmatic or liturgical offerings involving the whole community, or suggestions for personal disciplines (either taking on or giving up). But even here, the added bible studies, Wednesday prayers and suppers, additional works of mercy, added Eucharistic liturgies, or fundraisings for particular social outreach programs – while all very good things – do not often reveal the formational shape of our lives in Christ as fundamentally liturgical.
Beyond the wonderful opportunities afforded by Roman Catholic schools with built in catechesis and corporate prayer, I have been increasingly concerned about liturgical formation with children in the geographical area where I live. For a number of parishes, Roman Catholic and Anglican, the longstanding trend of removing children from a sizeable part of the Sunday morning liturgy for their own time together (debated well on all types of social media and print news in the past two years) often amounts to the total parish opportunity for catechesis and formation, with the statistical reality pointing to their partial “excommunication” in childhood years contributing to a disengagement with primary worshiping communities in their teen and young adult years. There is one practice that is new to me, however, and which has caught my eye here in Canada the past two years; one that is, in the end, an old practice brought back to meet a new reality. The practice is an Ash Wednesday release day – a retreat primarily for Anglican children throughout the city (but with a welcome to others) between the ages of 5 and 12.
Because the majority of readers for the Pray Tell blog are Christians in the US, it might be helpful here to mention two differences between Canada and America. In Canada, it was common (although variable from province to province), for Christian children to have several religious release days from school. All that was required was written permission from their priest (or other minister) saying that they needed to be released to be in church for Epiphany or Ascension Day or other important liturgy in the calendar. The multicultural multifaith reality of Canada today, plus the ecclesial accommodation to secular rhythms by moving feasts to Sunday, has erased much of this practice. The second Canadian reality is that unlike the US, Ontario and other provinces have four subsets of publicly funded schools, linguistically divided: English public, English Catholic, French public, French Catholic. In the English and French language publicly funded Catholic schools, catechesis and liturgical formation are present (although the current debate about Eastern Christians, Anglicans, Protestants, and others attending these schools involves how much and whether there even should be this particular religious focus).
This is the context of a return to claiming a holy day for the younger members of a parish, begun in imitation of the prevalent practices of observant Jews and Muslims. The children are released from the school day (9:00-3:00), they burn palms to make ashes, have instruction and conversation on the meaning of ashes, of Lent, and of preparing (exercising their spiritual muscles) to get ready for Easter. They cook a simple meal together, they do a community service project, and all of it in the context of corporate prayer and worship of God, including a celebration of Holy Eucharist for Ash Wednesday. This year, with the alignment of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, the release day was titled “Grow a heart for God”, a fitting ‘fit’ of the liturgies of our lives. How do we form the younger members of our parish communities beyond information about our faith? I look forward to learning more about this restored tradition as well as others emerging from the body of Christ around the world. And I commend to you this practice of putting life and liturgy together in a school of the Lord’s service.