The first time I sat down to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I nearly quit reading in the first few chapters. This is because Tolkien’s introduction in The Fellowship of the Ring seems to go on forever, introducing a brief history of Middle-Earth to us, along with Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, Men, and some of the history and customs proper to Middle-Earth… all the way down to specific details of the ways in which Hobbits celebrate birthday parties. Then, it goes into a lengthy explanation of Bilbo’s Birthday. Unlike the movies, the books take several chapters before the real action starts as Frodo and Sam begin their journey to Rivendell, fleeing the Black Riders of Mordor who have come looking for them. As much as it nearly lost me the first time through – and many others I know who’ve given up on reading The Lord of the Rings during this lengthy introduction – being able to understand the world Tolkien created helps me to appreciate the story on a much deeper level. When my wife and I sit down to watch The Lord of the Rings, I have a far greater appreciation for it than she does (as she has never read the books.)
You could compare this to the way in which we celebrate the Sacraments (the ‘Mysteries of Christ.’) For example, when we celebrate Mass, we begin by having the readings proclaimed to us, introducing to us the language, characters, and world in which God meets us. Then we go from words into action when we experience the way in which God is continuing to act in the here and now, coming to us under the form of bread and wine, nourishing us and continually transforming us. This is where our liturgical celebrations go beyond a story we read and into real life:
“Celebrating the Litugy means encountering God, allowing Him to act, listening to Him responding to Him. Such dialogues are always expressed in gestures and words.” -YouCat 182
One of the ongoing frustrations I hear from the teenagers I work with is how it can be so hard to see/hear/know God exists. It is for this reason that Catholic celebrations are filled with signs and symbols, to help bring the spiritual realities to life for us. We Baptize with water, representing our desire to be washed of sin; we hear the words of forgiveness in Reconciliation… all to help us see/hear/know that God is acting in our lives:
“God knows that we are not only spiritual but also bodily creatures; we need signs and symbols in order to perceive and describe spiritual or interior realities.” -YouCat 181
This is why Catholic liturgy is so rich with signs and symbols – bells, incense, stained glass, vestments, candles, music – all to help us perceive and describe what’s going on. It’s not a moment where we see God face to face – that would probably overwhelm us – but it helps bring us beyond ourselves recognizing that we are ALWAYS in the presence of God. It’s also the reason why our liturgy is built the way it is – first the history (His story, from the Scriptures), and then His action. As Fr. Michael Mireau, the late chaplain of Edmonton Catholic Schools often said – first God tells us He loves us, then He shows us He loves us.
If you attend Mass over the course of a year, you’ll also notice that the Church also has a yearly cycle of celebrations – what we refer to as the ‘liturgical year’- in which we are able to look at the whole story of our faith:
“The Church year superimposes the mysteries of Christ – from His incarnation to His second coming in glory – on the normal course of the year.” -YouCat 186
This Church year will begin again in December with the season of Advent, where we will again prepare ourselves to celebrate Christ’s birthday, we recognize His coming to us in the here and now, and we await His return – the second coming of Christ. Following Advent, we have a couple of weeks where we celebrate Christmas (which is why the trees, lights, and Christmas carols stay up in Church until the second week or so of January.) About mid-February, we usually celebrate Ash Wednesday which begins the Church’s annual retreat (40 days of Lent) in preparation for the high point of the Chuch year, the Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter) which recalls Jesus’ redemptive suffering, death, and resurrection. This is followed by FIFTY days of celebration (Easter), culminating in Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles – the birth of the Church.
Intertwined with the seasons of preparation (Advent, Lent) and the high points of the year (Christmas, Easter), we have ordinary time and various feasts and celebrations dedicated to the saints. In both cases, we are presented with other dimensions of the story. In “Ordinary Time,” we work our way through the entirety of the scriptures – after three years of attending Mass, essentially the entire Bible has been proclaimed to us. On the feasts of various Saints, we hear the story of how different heroic individuals have brought these mysteries to life. The Church year winds down in November with readings about Christ’s return and the end of the world, culminating with the feast of Christ the King, which we’ll celebrate this coming Sunday – November 25, 2012. Far from being a question of fear, for Christians it’s meant to remind us that there is more to life than what we see in front of us, and we should be waiting ‘in joyful hope for the coming of our savior.’
With all of that in mind, the Sunday Mass remains at the heart and center of all we do, since “…on Sunday we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, and every Sunday is a miniature Easter” (YouCat 187). And so, every Sunday we head into a Church to be renewed, strenghtened, and sent out (Mass comes from a Latin word, Missa, which literally means ‘sent.’) And the fact that we gather together in one particular, dedicated place is also important:
“Certainly, one can pray anywhere – in the forest, on the beach, in bed… (but since) we also have a body, we need to see, hear, and feel one another; we need a specific place if we want to meet so as to be the body of Christ; we must kneel down if we want to worship God; we must (receive the body of Christ) when it is offered; we must set our bodies in motion when He calls to us.” -YouCat 189
We don’t go to Church to celebrate Mass because God needs it – we go because we need it. We need to be brought into the story, to understand more clearly what we’re doing, to hear, see, and know what God wants to say to us. We need to be strengthened because sometimes life can be hard – particularly when we’re trying to follow Christ. We need to be strengthened by the body of Christ – both in the Eucharist and by the community in which we gather, knowing that we aren’t doing this alone. The more we listen and come to understand what we are doing – and offer ourselves in full, active, and conscious participation – we’ll be able to truly appreciate and grow into the men and women Christ has created us to be.
“God has set up churches like harbors along the coast, so that you may take refuge there out of the swirl of earthly cares and find peace and quiet.” -St. John Chrysostom