Sundays are often a time of reflection upon the week past, and on this Labor Day weekend, the roles of work and worship wove together in my thoughts. Someone said to me this last week that going to Mass was experiencing the meeting of Heaven and Earth, and nothing less. If young people understood this, my friend said, if they fully understood the implications of the stupendous action occurring on the altars of the world, they might be more interested in participating in the liturgy, Greek for the work of the people.
In many ways the experience of the Eucharist is that simple and that profound, that exciting and that adventurous. It is encountering the burning bush of Moses, the cleansing coals of Isaiah, the super-reality of C.S. Lewis in the sharp-bladed grass of The Great Divorce, a reality that T.S. Eliot described in Four Quartets with the words, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” One should approach God’s glory with some fear and trembling, as the Psalmists repeatedly warn, yet in the certainty of God’s boundless love.
American culture has largely sentimentalized worship and in doing so has also removed the exhilaration, satisfaction, and fulfillment that comes from being part of a great celestial and redemptive work.
We are a permissive post-war culture, and we have become addicted to pleasure, as standards of living rise, cushioning our lives and increasing our expectations. Still we never have enough, always demanding more, sooner, complaining it isn’t enough. The play ethic has replaced the work ethic, and if we work it is to play more and better.
Gone, or at least unpopular, is commitment. Commitment to work, spouse, children, parents, grandparents, God, the Church, the Body of Christ. We want to be free to flee, to flit, to hover, to escape, to feel good. We want immediate gratification, immediate purchase, we want the now, and we will mortgage our children’s future to obtain it.
Gone, or at least marginalized, is belief in the judgment of God, or indeed, our fellow man. Gone are standards of objective right and wrong. We are our own gods and we evaluate our own righteousness. We flee from other arbiters, from imposed morality, from the Church and its moral imperatives. Another friend commented this last week that he didn’t need to attend church on Sundays since he led a Christian life, meaning, I believe, he was a good person, righteous. What happened to worship? to thanksgiving? to meeting God? to the intersection of Earth with Heaven? God wants more than goodness. He wants us. He burns with fire for us. He comes to us and calls us by name.
Gone is the search for truth, for truth might curtail freedom to flee judgment.
Some of us look for the right church “fit,” feeling a lack, a nagging sense of loss, looking for something greater, something numinous. We church-shop, wanting to feel good now and have our own goodness validated. We don’t want demands. We don’t want ten commandments and we don’t want seven deadly sins. We don’t want to be told not to kill our unborn children or wed our sisters.
We don’t want to meet God in the burning bush where he reveals himself. We don’t want to be cleansed with fiery coal. We don’t want to admit our sins and be washed in the blood of the lamb.
And yet, when we do this, when we are washed clean by confession and absolution, when we truly meet God in the Eucharist, we soar into Heaven from Earth. We sing, as we did this Sunday morning,
Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates;
Behold the King of glory waits!
The King of kings is drawing near;
The Saviour of the world is here.
Fling wide the portals of your heart;
Make it a temple, set apart
From earthly use for heav’n’s employ,
Adorned with prayer and love and joy.
Redeemer, come! I open wide
My heart to thee: here, Lord, abide!
Let me thy inner presence feel;
Thy grace and love in me reveal.
So come, my Sov’reign; enter in!
Let new and nobler life begin;
Thy Holy Spirit guide us on,
Until the glorious crown be won. (Hymn #484, George Weissel, 1642, based on Psalm 24)
The walls of my office are covered with icons and shelves crammed with books. Jewel-toned images against gold leaf, the icons are figures surrounded by glory, the earthy animated by the heavenly. We are like them, creatures of two worlds united by body and soul.
Soon, soon, another work of the people, another liturgy, another Mass, will call me to this gilded glory, this work of heaven and earth..