As I contemplate tomorrow, the Sabbath, and my determination to visit a number of Catholic parishes before making a final decision, I got to thinking about what “going to church” actually means.
Surely, it has changed in meaning over the centuries. Surely, it seems to me, it was meant to be something rather different back in the early days after the crucifixion and resurrection, than it came to mean.
God in Exodus, commands the Sabbath. On that day humans shall do no work. They shall keep the day holy. To the literalists of the day, it came to be horribly specific. Rabbis spend untold hours discussing and deciding what things could and could not be done during this time without violating the “no work” rule. It became, frankly, burdensome in the extreme, and still is to those most orthodox of Jews.
Jesus was chastised a goodly number of times for his violation. He reminded the Pharisees and scribes enumerable times that doing good things for the well-being of others was not against the rules. In fact in Mark 2:27, he directly claimed that the “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God was enforcing a day of leisure over and against the wealthy who would command workers to work day after day without end.
We have claimed the Sabbath as a day to worship God in community. And, most would argue, that the delineating line between “practicing” Christian and Christian “in name only” is attendance at services in a church. Whether this is right or fair is deeply open to question.
Clearly no God worth being named as such needs or desires worship. That is the province of kings and dictators, emperors and demagogues. Such humans, all too worried that they have no moral right to their positions, seek the acclaim of the masses to reassure them. God needs no such thing.
Worship seems designed to remind us that God is on the job, something we are wont to forget in our busyness. Prayer is similarly, for us. Surely it is not for God. God knows our desires, our failings, our repentance, our needs, and our sorrows without us having to formally give voice to them. And we don’t have to do this in order to “activate” God’s reply. Again, prayer seeks to remind us of the cord that binds us to Him.
When I think of the early church, in those first years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, I often imagine a much different event than the one we find in our Christian churches each Sunday.
I imagine a small group of folks gathering at one person’s home. This group is comprised, in those very early years, with perhaps one or two who actually saw Jesus in the flesh, heard his discourse, and was amazed at his power. They gather, bringing wine and bread, some fruit, perhaps some fish. They recite the hymns of old, the psalms that are part of their collective memory.
Those with memories of the living Jesus relate the stories once more, others perhaps relate stories they heard personally from one of the apostles, of someone who knew someone who knew. . . . The children, listen in rapt attention. A letter, copied perhaps innumerable times is read, from Paul or Peter, or James, or perhaps another long-lost to the ages.
Finally the story is told of the last supper. Quiet descends as the words are spoke. “Eat this. . .drink this. . .This is. . . .” And the bread is broken and passed around, and the wine is poured. And they eat in silence. Then the table is set, the food put forth, and everyone catches up on the week’s activities.
When the meal is concluded, and the table cleaned, they join hands, and give thanks for all their blessings in God and Jesus. They give thanks for the Holy Spirit that inhabits them. They pass around the bowl, and each contributes what they can to be given to the poor in the community. Blessings, and hugs, and goodbyes, and where they will meet the next week. And they return home.
Yet, they, I suspect were never far from remembering that day throughout the week, sharing with friends and acquaintances the Good News. Their Jewish upbringing brought them to prayer each day, probably several times a day.
Today, I sit in church, and I listen, and I look around. And I wonder. That is all I can do. For I could not tell the “I’m just here because it’s required” and those that are there to be nourished. But I know that some are of one kind and some of the other. Some scoot into the pew after the entrance, and receive communion and continue walking to the door. Others look at watches, others moan in their heart as another stanza of the last hymn begins.
Into the parking lot, and cars are zooming for exits. Some, like me, parked at the far end, to not get caught in the tangle. Breathing free and self-satisfied are we. Having done our duty.
Some of us do daily devotions of one sort or another. Again, some realize that it is for themselves and not God that such time is offered.
Yet we flock back on Sunday. And I’m not sure we are doing it justice. Not sure we are actually doing much more than going through the motions. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. We observe the “substance” of the ritual.
In our mega cathedrals, in our packed-in-like-sardines atmosphere, we mostly don’t know our neighbors, let alone catch up. We don’t share the Good News. We don’t pass the bread and wine. We don’t bring our offerings to share. We write a check and only know that it goes to “charity” not the poor lady down the street from us and her disabled son.
I do not chastise the “spiritual” but not “religious” person. For I do not know that they are any less faithful than I. And I know that in some cases they are certainly more than I or anyone else.
Let us remember what it is all about, this day. . . Saturday. Do that for a change, instead of leaving it all for tomorrow.