First published in “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com on Dec. 31, 2022
I came away from Christmas Mass this year with a heightened appreciation of those who had joined the congregation as, let’s say, occasional visitors.
Some of them attend on Christmas and Easter largely because it’s a family event or it’s a time “to be seen.” These examples of “peer pressure” were once reinforced by America’s Judeo-Christian culture.
One can understand folks feeling various pressures. A lot of people acknowledge in their hearts, and increasingly in their minds as a practical matter, that our society can go sadly—and dangerously—astray without a recognition of God. It is right and just to give Him a social shout-out.
We pilgrims, or wanderers, also know Him as the everyday origin of charity, dignity, mercy, justice, and enduring meaning. At a minimum, we know we need to “represent” because He is our source of consolation and care—if not the first responder, the A-Team we call in case of emergency. He is somehow a member of our families, or a part of our ancestry who deserves to be recognized, no matter how awkwardly.
Theologically speaking, peripatetic Christians are indeed poised to receive wonderful things in return for a return to the sacramental life, a list topped by the Holy Eucharist, the complete presence of powerful grace, engagement in the Church’s highest form of prayer, community solidarity, and spiritual refreshment.
But, as our priest presiding at the vigil Mass boldly (but gently) reminded everyone, Communion is a sacred event whose participants are practicing Catholics. The Church welcomes all and is an instrument for everyone’s growth in God’s love, he said, but this might be a time for one to ask the Lord for a blessing and/or simply remain in the pew.
Some attendees may see this guidance as an undue infringement of their freedom. Worse, knowing one’s place and “staying in your lane” are forms of embarrassment, acknowledgements of guilt or imperfection. They are the opposites of virtue-signaling, which is currently trending in culture!
Here is the bottom line: In light of the personal admissions and reevaluations being suggested, if we take seriously a truth-speaking priest, and the Church, there is a price to pay for attending Mass.
A serious charge is codified in the Bible: “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 11:27) That’s something all congregants, no matter the frequency of their presence, need to remember.
And it occurred to me at Christmastime that various attendees might feel the Mass exacts still another price of admission. This is an unwelcome tax levied not by the Church, but by today’s secularized, therapeutic, self-centered culture.
The secular discouragement of loving relationships with Jesus Christ only frustrates our innate hunger for a more excellent way and our the heart-felt desire to fill our “God-shaped hole.” (This latter idea has roots in Acts 17:22-27 and, much later, in comments by Blaise Pascal.)
Those attentive to this vacuum in themselves and in society might find it taxing to get through the early parts of the Mass, not to mention the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The Mass starts us off by asking God for mercy. What, did we do something wrong?
The Confiteor can hit us with a sledgehammer of humility. We are confessing to God—and to our brothers and sisters (OMG, they are our brothers and sisters)—that each one of us has “greatly sinned” in a variety of ways. And we can’t point fingers. We have to tell everybody, “I need your prayers.”
Then the Church challenges us further in the context of our responsibility to a God who came to save us from the mess we have made.
The church’s seasonal visitors might notice the poignant specificity of The Gloria; it is a prayer echoing the angels as they celebrate the first Christmas! The awesome power and promise surrounding Jesus’ birth is described in Luke 2:13-14. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.”
TV viewers informed by the better angels of our culture will remember that a little child, Linus by name, used that quote to lead his friend—and multiple generations of audiences—to learn the Good News. Hear it proclaimed here: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
The initial prayers of Mass tell us to praise and adore Christ as our savior, and to give God thanks because all glory must go to Him. He alone is holy. Alas, that means we dare not play God.
Scholars and pollsters will tell us that people have fallen away from the Church—and from Mass—for lots of important reasons. Younger Americans are non-joiners who want to define their spirituality for themselves. Christian teachings make them reticent. They say religion causes violence. They doubt dogmas that conflict with observable facts.
But I observed another reason for society’s departure from the pews—and for the Christmastime exception that proves the rule. There is a culturally imposed unease some Mass-goers face in pausing their prerogatives so they can be surprised by joy.
My family and I found a few available seats in the back of the church, but perhaps we weren’t as uncomfortable as some of the newcomers. I came to a new respect for all those people awkwardly abandoning their weekend routines to be dutifully present at Mass. (They didn’t know where to sit. And neither did we.)
I realized the Church is beautifully countercultural, and our liturgy is wonderfully confounding from beginning to end. We all experienced it at the vigil. Even before we saw our priest, we had to squeeze in and humbly follow the directions of the ushers.
After Communion, a business-attired man seated next to me checked his phone and nudged his family to slip away as the final hymn began. They might have had reservations somewhere.
As a child of a culture that has become more and more secular, I’ve behaved and thought like that gentleman plenty of times. In his family’s presence, I truly found brothers and sisters.
My family stayed for the whole hymn, partly because we have become comfortable with Mass, and Christmas, as providential breaks from the tedium of being on our own—and enduring the “good grief” Charlie Brown always saw society imposing.
All of us in that congregation needed to pray for each other, to forgive each other, and to turn to God for the glory we crave. We cannot take this awareness for granted if we want to heal our culture through the humility of truth and trust. Without the Mass, a summons to incarnational faith, hope and connectedness, my family and others might all be on the verge of slipping away, or going astray. We would be using our “reservations” as excuses to leave a vacuum in our God-shaped holes.
Worse, to avoid paying the price of admission, we would be AWOL in the church, and in the Church. Keeping vigil, we were wisely challenged to know our place, including our place in the glory of Christmas.
Image from ClipSafari, an online collection of Creative Commons designs.