Thursday, 9 May 2013

Holiday of Obligation

It would seem I’m a hopeless evangelist. 

“Just as well” you might say.  Yet God (or the Bible) did tell us not to hide our light under a bushel.  I think, however, that I grew up believing ‘light’ equated with ‘talent’… so I’ve done my best to stand in a spotlight. 

Seriously, though, I had to laugh yesterday when one of my closest friends said “Mullins, what’s a Holiday of Obligation?”   I’d been referring to the Feast of the Ascension… you know, when Our Lord went back to Heaven…  and falling on May 9th in 2013 it also happens to be my sister Alison’s birthday.  No doubt revealing the depth of my Irish heritage, I had said to my friend, Hayley, something like “I can’t come out drinking tomorrow until after Mass because it’s a Holy Day of Obligation”.  Actually I’m not sure if, strictly speaking, it is anymore as they keep changing the rules, but it seems an important day to go to church – celebrating Jesus and His job well done and all that.

Now apart from “what’s a Holiday of Obligation” giving me good reason to laugh, it got me thinking.  Is that perhaps what the church actually means?  Are we supposed to stop and have a holiday from our cares and woes and concentrate on more uplifting things?  Well, you can say what you like about Italian politics (there’s a lot to say) and the Vatican (ditto) but it’s hard to find a country with as many lovely, unexpected holidays as there are in Italy.  In the UK we hang out for the May Day holiday for six months of a long winter.  There is another public holiday coming up soon but then it’s ages before we get another.  It’s all work, work, work, for those in employment – the Goldilocks balance of “just right”… as in “just enough work”… hard to find. 

But in Italy – oh, it’s wonderful.  There’s a holiday and festival every week.  Think of any Saint you can name and they will be the Patron of some town in Italy for which there must be an annual holiday (at least in that location).  Add to that list the towns and Saints you’ve never heard of so the list goes on and on.  Then add regular ‘Holidays of Obligation’… which believers and non-believers seize as a natural right… special church calendar events like Corpus Christi… and ad-hoc celebrations like VE Day, commemoration of the unification of Italy under King Vittorio Emanuele in 1860, the Medici did this or that day, the victory of this or that battle, and self-styled holidays after a big football win… and it makes running a business in Italy fairly challenging.  Everyone else loves it; as unsurprisingly most fall in the nine warmest months of the year.  All that fabulous food and wine to taste in each little town… all those medieval festivals where people dress up and I can pretend I’m at the theatre… and sunshine and blue skies and the colours and smells of Italy which in Tuscany and Umbria are as rich as it gets… and you can see why I fell in love with it. 

Then when I made a good friend in Alessandro, he had a great appetite for country festivals so we’d go together which really enhanced the fun – sometimes even up hill and over dale on a motor bike, with me hanging on for dear life and squeezing him around the waist to slow down which really annoyed him (apparently annoys any Italian alpha male behind any kind of steering-wheel).

Lovely memories; things I definitely plan to do again and again if all goes to plan. 

Meanwhile, in whatever country you live, I think Holy Days and Holidays of Obligation are a fine thing.  They are both about relaxing, about getting down to the nuts and bolts, about remembering (and celebrating) what is important to you, what is important to the community and your place in it.  And those questions are important for the secular and the sacred.  They nourish us for the next stage.

Nevertheless it would appear I am a lousy evangelist if I haven’t told my great friend about the importance of Jesus’ Ascension.   She says I talk to God a lot… out loud apparently, something like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof… yes, sorry, there is always a theatrical reference… but I think that just means I’m eccentric (hopefully in a good way).  Maybe it means I’m crazy too but I don’t think it gives me brownie points for ‘not hiding my light under a bushel’. 

So to that end I’ll just say: I am Catholic.  But when it comes down to it I am far less attached to being Catholic or Protestant, Methodist or Evangelical, Roman or Orthodox than I am simply to being Christian.  At the Royal Opera House last night watching Verdi’s Don Carlo I was horrified at the antics (and blood-bath) the King of Spain got up to in the name of ‘Defender of the Faith’.  And don’t get me started on the Spanish Inquisition.  In Ireland recently I was as deeply moved by stories of persecution of Catholics as I was by tales of dreadful Protestant suffering.  Most of it was/is politics and has little to do with Jesus.  Indeed so often our claims to ‘God on our side’ are a dreadful distortion.  For if God is God isn’t He on everyone’s side – the ultimate fair judge?!

Anyway I think Jesus is the kind of guy, purely looked at in His own right, that anyone would be happy to know.  I happen to also believe He was the Son of God, that He loves us more than we can imagine, and that he came to earth to save us before ‘ascending’ to Heaven to get the party ready for when we return to Him. 

I just wish we wouldn’t fight about all the other stuff that goes on around Him.  He’s big enough to be shared – even bigger than the most charismatic, popular, wise and loving person you've ever met – it’s we mortals who get all hot and bothered about ‘who knows Him best’... ‘who understands His purpose best’.  

So: happy Feast of the Ascension Jesus!  I’m relying on that invitation to Heaven.  There are people I need to see, and as much as I like warm temperatures I’m not keen on saunas.  Have a wonderful Holiday of Obligation everyone.