This being Palm Sunday I anticipate that many of you reading this don’t come to Mass every week but are here because it’s a special day. First, welcome!
Second, I’d like to invite you to think with me about the importance of church ritual. (Yes, this is an “ad” for coming to church every week.) My approach may not be what you’re expecting; and I’m convinced that people who come to Mass every week can benefit from considering this as well.
My first assumption is that we human beings only barely understand ourselves or the immense cosmos we’ve somehow appeared in. My second assumption is that we human beings are quite good at unwittingly covering-up this fact, so that we convince ourselves that our understanding is, if not perfect, at least “good-enough.”
My third assumption is that this combination is slowly killing a lot of us, either through what researchers call “deaths of despair” (overeating, drugs, alcohol, stress, and, of course, suicide), or – paradoxically – through what the culture calls “success” but which is hollowing out those who succeed on the culture’s terms. (I’m writing this just after the revelations of all the “successful” people who were arrested for scheming to get their kids into colleges through bribery, to take just one example. More widely, how many of the “successful” people in the news would you like your kids to grow up imitating?)
Religious rituals have emerged in every culture to provide an anchor so that people aren’t swept to their deaths by their ignorance. The shapes of rituals vary, of course; but they emerge to keep people alive. Our own rituals – particularly the Mass – are shaped in part by Jesus’ command at the Last Supper – “Do this in memory of me” – and also by the memory that Jesus himself worshipped at the synagogue every Sabbath. But the need to ritualize these memories – to enact them – meets a deep but too-often unrecognized human need. Without regularly-performed ritual, we drift away from (or never connect to) what gives us a sense of place and purpose in an overwhelmingly big, dangerous, and mysterious cosmos.
This is, in part, why coming to Mass only occasionally often leads to the “I didn’t get anything out of it” or “It was boring” response. To which I say, Of course! Ritual only “works” when it’s regularly and faithfully repeated over years and decades. If this seems like a large commitment and hard work, let me reassure you: It most certainly is.
Living well as a human being is, in fact, a most difficult thing. The “creature comforts” that we are surrounded by (and believe me, I appreciate indoor plumbing and air-conditioning as much as anyone) seem to lead us to a wrong-headed sense that everything must be easy. The sages of all the world’s religious say, Not so. That our society’s manufacturers are engaged in making ever-larger needles and its biologists in developing ever-smaller camels has not yet (and, in my estimation, will never) led to widespread entry into bliss. Sin, suffering, and death don’t go away, even if we distract ourselves with the latest toys. But there is an alternative way of living that is possible, if difficult; and it involves serious commitment to a way of life that involves (but goes beyond) ritual prayer – for those who follow the Catholic path, weekly Mass. More next week. Until then, peace.