The mom with the two gregarious kids. That really tall guy with a penchant for khakis. The older lady with a beautiful singing voice. We may not know them by name, but we’ve formed a liturgical community with our fellow parishioners. But come Easter, we will be swarmed with…strangers!
Some have called them C.E. Catholics—C for Christmas and E for Easter. Others prefer P.L. Catholics—Poinsettia and Lily. Whatever the term, these new faces will clog the streets leading to your parish, fill the parking lot forcing you to park blocks away and will most likely be sitting in the assigned seat everyone knows is yours. In fact, if you don’t arrive early enough, you may be standing.
How are we to react to these apparent Johnny-come-latelies whose shadow only darkens the door of the church twice a year? Holy anger? Evil glances? Turned up noses? Poison-tipped darts? Plaques? Locust? Should we wish that the priest “let them have it” in the homily? Nah, that would be like yelling at my son for picking up his dinosaur toys after being told several times. He’s finally doing it, why scold him now?
No. This is an incredible opportunity! Who knows what has brought them to sit right next to you? A sense of guilt? Tradition? A longing to connect with the Divine? Now is not the time for a psychological evaluation or theological admonition.
It’s time to celebrate!
Each C and E, I am reminded of two parables our Lord delivered whose teaching can be applied here. The first is the Parable of the Vineyard Workers.
A vineyard owner hires workers at various times of the day. The ones hired first put in a full day’s work. Those hired at noon, three, and five o’clock put in fewer hours. But the owner pays everyone the same—a full day’s wage (a denarius). Those hired first gripe that they labored much longer and deserve more than the others. Their complaint to the vineyard owner is:
“you have made them equal to us.”—Matthew 20:12
But the owner is not cheating them. They agreed to a day’s wage and that’s what they are all getting. He replies:
“‘What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’”—Matthew 20:14-15
The other parable is the Prodigal Son. A man had two sons. The younger asks for his inheritance and goes off to spend it on wild living. He runs out of money when a famine hits and takes a job feeding pigs. Eventually, he returns to his father in humility. The father receives his son with open arms and doesn’t mention his waywardness and does not take the opportunity to chastise him. Instead, he prepares a feast to celebrate his return.
The older son, however, is less than thrilled. His jealousy prevents him from entering the house. He tells his father that after years of faithfulness to him, not once did he throw a party for him and his friends. The father replies:
“‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”—Luke 15:32
As we celebrate the day Jesus “was dead and has come to life again,” let’s not be envious at the Lord’s generosity. We are in no way better than them. Yes, God has made them “equal to us.” As St. Paul tells us “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We’re all in the same boat—in need of the Lord.
No, the stranger sitting next to you this Sunday will not reek from debauched living. He or she will not be sweaty after only working one hour in a vineyard. We do not know why their church attendance is spotty and Easter is definitely not the day to ask why.
We may have enjoyed the gift of Christ, his peace, comfort, the Sacraments, the Church, the Eucharist and our Parish community longer than they have. Rather than sneer, let’s be welcoming as the father did and rejoice that they too can experience this unquenchable font, this holy treasure! Let’s be a reason they want to come back next week and not the reason they do not.
How about you? Does your parish attendance swell at Christmas and Easter? Do they do anything different to accommodate them? Did they steal your seat? Do you take poison-dipped darts to church? Locust? What can we do to show charity at this time?