Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), a Canadian philosopher of communication theory, not only foresaw the Internet but bequeathed this popular phrase, “The medium is the message.” Since I work with words and consider them the material of miracles, I like to think that words are powerful on their own, anywhere, in any medium. But lately I have been considering how powerful the medium is truly becoming, far more than McLuhan could have dreamed.
In our parish church we use a Eucharistic liturgy that can be dated to the eleventh-century Sarum rite in Salisbury, England; the daily hours, the psalter, go back to seventh-century monasteries. But more to the point is that many generations have said and say these same words, as though taking part in a great drama, each Sunday. The words form phrases of timeless truth that were honed and perfected in Elizabethan translations of the Latin Mass, so that in many ways what we say evokes a Shakespearean play. The words are big words with large theological consequences of sin and redemption, sorrow and joy, darkness and light. These words make a difference in our hearts and lives, here and now. The language serves a clear purpose, to bring us in from the profane and secular world so that we can partake of the sacred and holy one, uniting the two. The language rebirths and recreates us, returning us to the secular world to be living mediums for the message. Our lives become words and the medium merges with the message in our own bodies.
In the liturgy, the medium that holds these words, this message, is print on paper, pages in our prayer book or hymnal. But the same words come to us through the medium of our own speech as we say and sing them and through the medium of our ears as we hear them said and sung. A fourth medium for these words is found in the actions of the liturgy: kneeling, making the Sign of the Cross, genuflecting, processing to the altar, receiving Christ in the bread and the wine. These acts, these movements of our bodies, are probably the most powerful medium for this message.
A sixth medium for this Sunday morning message is found in the shared experience of the congregation: the sharing of the space, the language, the speech, the processing, the saying and singing, the shared prayers and creeds spoken in unison as one voice. There is also the sharing of the meaning of the words, the call for penitence, the general absolution, the sharing of the bread and wine, so that we become one body, Christ’s Body, the Church.
A seventh medium is seen in the sharing of the message throughout time and space, with those believers before us and those believers after us. The sharing extends spatially outside our own parish to the greater world, and we call this the Communion of Saints.
So ritualistic liturgy (“the work of the people”) is propelled by seven mediums nearly simultaneously, providing a powerful experience of meaning, of message. We have pulled the heart from each word; we have traveled centuries with each word; we have looked into Heaven with each word.
Such ritual is part of social constructions as well. Where it is ignored, society becomes deconstructed, torn apart. Where it is recognized as necessary, society weaves together, for a commonality is shared. In a democracy, we are reminded of such shared values through mediums of patriotic rituals: celebrating national holidays with parades and ceremonies, saluting the flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing patriotic songs, honoring memorials, monuments, and heroes of our shared history. When these mediums of our nation’s message are ignored, democracy is threatened, for we act as individuals or self-interested groups rather than as one body, Americans with shared ideals expressed in common language and recalled through common history.
As we approach our nation’s midterm elections, messages and mediums become hugely important. Illiteracy and short attention spans demand entertaining mediums, TV and sound bites. Voters choose candidates and policy based on flashing images and pulsating phrases, delivered by powerful interest groups. A candidate must be politically correct in appearance, attractive and charismatic. Votes are cast for race, gender, and other superficial standards.
It would not matter if these were high school elections for cheerleader or class president. But, as we have seen in the last two presidential elections, telegenic does not mean experienced and pretty words and phrases do not equal sound policy. Words are mediums for something greater; they must point to keeping us safe and our communities law-abiding. They must reflect constitutional protections to freedom of speech, religion, association.
Our diverse peoples, the glory of our nation, must melt into one pot we call America; we must share language and history; we must not forget who we are, but keep the message alive with each generation through the medium of patriotism. If we do not do this, we shall fragment, weaken, and be conquered by those who do not appreciate our American message.
And so, as the words thundered in my ears this morning in our little church, as I sang with my brothers and sisters, as I united with believers around the world, past, present, and future, I looked ahead to this moment in our national history, this first Tuesday in November of 2014, praying that the many voices of America would reflect educated choices, ones that respect law, liberty, and freedom of expression, ones that understand the power of this American message expressed in the greatest medium of all, a single vote.