Three years ago, when the Catholic Church changed the liturgy and demanded that we all learn to pronounce “consubstantial,” I worried about how the lily-and-poinsettia crowd was going to manage at Christmas. The so-called C&E Christians – those who go to church only on Christmas and Easter – would never be so conspicuous, I figured. They’d be stumbling over the responses like first-graders learning to read.
But, no. Turns out, the stumbler is me.
Three years into the new translation, I sometimes find myself still saying “And also with you.”
Worse, I’m still saying it while looking at the book that tells me to say “And with your spirit.”
Early on, my friend Father John told me it wasn’t the occasional church-goer, but people who went to Mass every day who would struggled most with the change. The old liturgy is so ingrained in their heads, the responses so automatic, that it’s as though the mind willfully deviates from the new, like a teenager defying a parent. It’s as if the subconscious has more sway than the conscious.
Which is, come to think of it, why there are C&E Christians at all.
Consider this: Why is it that a person who won’t sit in a church for 50 minutes in October will stand there for an hour and a half on Christmas Eve?
Just 40 percent of Americans attend church every week, but over the holidays, it’s standing-room only. And being there is so important that, not only do the C&E Christians show up, but when they get there, if the church is full, an astonishing number of them will stand for the whole service, however uncomfortable they might be in their shiny new shoes.
It’s that wily old subconscious at work.
Despite all the howling about the secularization of Christmas, despite the “Happy Holidays” and “winter concerts,” despite forbidden crèches and declining attendance, the power of church stubbornly endures. At the most important times in their lives – weddings, funerals, holidays, and the coming-of-age rituals – it’s still where people want to be.
The challenge that today’s churches aren’t up to is how to get people to find significance there during the other 33 weeks of the year.
They don’t call it “Ordinary Time” for nothing.
After Christmas, the altars go bare, and the trumpets disappear from the choir lofts, and, like children who won’t play a regular Game Boy after experiencing a 3D-DSI, the C&Es lose interest in church once again. The thing that motivates them to go at Christmas and Easter, however, is still there, though dormant like chipmunks in winter, buried under everyday life.
It’s a holy thing, restlessness satisfied, a replenishment of awe. It can be experienced at a symphony, yes, or by looking through a telescope on a starry night, but the communal act of worship stands alone in its capacity to dare.
It’s gutsy, this business of faith.
To practice it, to bow publicly to the ridiculous notion that anything exists beyond our senses – and if it does, that it would deign to communicate Itself to humans – is to open oneself up to ridicule in this, our smart and coldly rational world.
It’s far easier, and makes so much more sense, to sleep in, to stay warm and antipathetic in the privacy of one’s own home.
C.S. Lewis, in his obscure novel “Perelandra,” wrote of men in wartime awakening “to the preposterous truth that all really depended on their actions.”
It’s a worry, isn’t it? The prospect of everything ultimately mattering – from your behavior, to your character, to whether or not you ever set foot in a church – can give a man the vapors if pondered earnestly enough.
I’m thinking it takes more courage to believe that everything matters than to conclude that nothing does.
The C&E Christians intuit this, too, and so, year after year, they come back. Theirs is a largely unconscious gesture, a tenuous expression of faith. But the Lord is with them – and with their spirit. That part of the new liturgy, they get. They may get the rest of it, too, if they are careful and don’t follow my lead.