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In the few months leading up to Christmas I felt a desire to attend a Sunday celebration of a more liturgical nature. I kept this dirty secret to myself for a while, while spying out every Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox edifice I could on my usual travels. I finally mentioned it to my wife, and she said "Oh, well you should go to the local Catholic church, they're just around the corner".
Truth be told, I had already been there twice for Christmas recitals for my sons. My two boys attend Catholic school, something the good Presbytarian deep inside me objected to initially, but has come to embrace. Perhaps it was the Christmas environment; perhaps it was the fact I had already been there twice; or perhaps it was the fact that I was confident no "connections team" or "assimilation ministry" would come my way when I walked in, but I found my way to the Transfiguration of our Lord church about 4 Sundays ago.
I had never been to mass before. Growing up in New Zealand, a nation of perhaps 7 or 8 Catholics, I wasn't sure what to expect. There are probably more Mormons than Catholics in New Zealand, but since I actually have also visited a Mormon sacrament meeting, I really probably should have done myself the honour of visiting a Catholic mass a long time ago. In case you are as unfamiliar with these things as I was, a Catholic mass is a church meeting (a gathering of the members of the body of Christ / the ekklesia). Like our charismatic meetings, it is to be considered the high-point of the weekly life of the Christian. The meeting features a procession of people carrying in the cross, worship, prayer, a sermon, communion, and a blessing. Like most aspects of more liturgical traditions, each of these stages of the meeting has a fancy name, which my wife sometimes corrects me on (homily vs sermon, eucharist vs communion, etc.).
I enjoyed the processional, and the symbolism within the building itself. I enjoyed the hymns immensely; I am a sucker for hymns. I enjoyed the sermon too, on the subject of birthing Christ into the world around us. I observed the sharing of communion closely, not able to partake myself, though I noted I was not the only one abstaining. The meeting was over in 55 minutes, and I found myself on the sidewalk entertaining the strangest of sensations:
I wanted more.
Let me clarify: it was not that I wanted more specifically of the liturgy, or so much more of the Catholic expression of our faith, rather, it simply ended earlier than I thought it would, and I would have been happy for it to continue a bit longer. I risk making myself a pariah by saying this, but I cannot remember the last time that I wished one of our charismatic meetings "lasted a bit longer". I can't remember the last time I wanted any more of Sunday on a Sunday morning.
I want more of God, yes, more of community, and less me and more Christ... but Sunday is actually about none of these things. Sunday is about the faithful brethren celebrating this shared life of Christ, and rarely have I felt that the celebration was not so jammed down my throat as I felt among my Catholic brothers and sisters a few weeks ago. Looking around the room, and then leaving the building, I could clearly see through the eyes of my heart that this was not the be-all or the end-all of the faith of these people. I could readily imagine, and I believe discern, that the people I witnessed here actually continued their faith throughout the week, meeting with one another, serving the poor, being Christ and so on. I was struck very hard by the thought that if this Sunday mass was the totality of their Christian life, then I don't blame people for turning Protestant... what a dry, symbolic, empty Christian life that would be! And in that moment, I was struck equally hard by a second thought... that the exact same thing applies to all Christians regardless of the way we celebrate. If our glorious Charismatic, participative, experiential Sundays are the totality of our Christian faith, then how vacuous and shallow would we be? Truth is, I have been championing this cause of weeklong integrated Christianity for about 5 years, but I suddenly saw a group of people for whom their celebration indeed seemed a celebration of something that continued on outside the walls. And I think we might have a thing or two to learn from our Catholic brothers and sisters in this regard. I love our revival expression, and our celebrations are incredible, but I think the sheer nature of them can lead us dangerously close to letting Sunday be it for us.
I mentioned all of this to an old friend, a wiser woman in the faith, and she shared the thought that some of our Charismatic meeting practices likely stem from the Methodist tent meetings that spread across Western North America. If your revival history is rusty, then what she's talking about is the Methodist circuit preachers that travelled the wild west as American society crept westward. Families lived in small towns, or more often, isolated homesteads on parcels of land, and Methodist preachers (like Francis Asbury) would travel on circuits around the frontier, preaching in homes. Periodically they would hold larger meetings, bringing in families from all around, and have a big old revival hoedown. In tents. Big Tent Revival. At these meetings they would have all the locals together for 4 or 5 days, and would be able to teach, preach, win souls, baptise, fill with the Holy Spirit, minister deliverance, and in all ways cultivate the lives of these people, for what might be there only chance for another 2 years. Imagine how much you'd feel you needed to pack in, if you knew you wouldn't see these poor souls for another 24 months. And since mortality was so high, often times this was the last time you'd see someone. That expression forms much of the genesis of our charistmatic church meetings today.
At least that's the theory, and it certainly makes sense to me.
So here's the challenge for each of us: Let's all remember that the Christian life is not Sunday. Let's make sure that Sunday (or whatever day you have your big meeting) is the chance to come together to celebrate our incredible Christ in whom we have our life and our being. The same Christ who is the head of our body, the body that we form and grow during the week, as we walk out body life with our family, neighbours and friends each and every day.
Let's all remember that celebrations are meant to be fun! Let's all remember that celebrations cease to be fun when the speeches draw on too long.
Let's all remember that each of our cultures have very different celebrations to one another, but we generally celebrate the same things: life, family, love.
Let's remember that God himself is life, family and love. And that these things are lived out every day of the week. Every day of the week, is why we celebrate.
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