Monday, April 18, 2011

Going to church, what's at stake?

Some Christians suppose that their decision not to go to church represents a kind of higher, purer, spirituality, a more authentic, or mature form of Christianity than does going to church. The Scriptures are not silent on the matter of our need to gather together. As both of my readers know, I have been reading and re-reading The Letter to the Hebrews over the last half of Lent. The primary concern of the unknown author of this letter, which is the best Greek composition among the books and letters that comprise the Christian Scriptures, is the danger of apostasy, of falling away from the practice of Christian faith, leaving the assembly, the ekklesia, the church. The falling away addressed is not the result of persecution, but an apparent weariness of the demands of Christian life, along with a growing indifference on the part of many early Christians. In my study, I have been grappling with some pretty demanding passages that we ignore at our own peril.

For example in chapter ten, the author takes up the issue of attending church, as it were:
Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy. We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near. If we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgment and a flaming fire that is going to consume the adversaries. Anyone who rejects the law of Moses is put to death without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Do you not think that a much worse punishment is due the one who has contempt for the Son of God, considers unclean the covenant-blood by which he was consecrated, and insults the spirit of grace? (10:23-29- underlining emphasis mine)
I do not hesitate to employ Scripture in this way. After all, if the word of God is not perennially relevant, then what good is it? My use, however, does not amount to a kind of tin-eared literalism, of which there is far too much, especially in the U.S. But just as the answer to legalism and formalism is not antinomian laxity, so the answer to biblical literalism is not the outright refusal to acknowledge what holy writ hands on to us just because it is demanding.

We understandably wince at so-called "hellfire and damnation" passages, such as this one. Indeed, fear is not much of a motivator. The argument, you should go to church or risk going hell, is not convincing to most people, as negative arguments are never as strong as positive ones. I certainly don't think any effective parish effort aimed at bringing people back to church will consist of billboards, handbills, and home visits that state: Come back to church or be consigned to hellfire. With that said, such outreaches must be driven by our concern for the destiny of those to whom we are reaching out. If not, then why bother?

A few chapters further along the author instructs the church to "[s]ee to it that no one be deprived of the grace of God, that no bitter root spring up and cause trouble." (12:15) Indeed, many who are away have had bad experiences in church, the ever-present sexual abuse scandal being a persistent and sobering reminder of this reality. Many more just stopped going and, discerning that their presence was not missed, have just stayed away.

So, we must resist the temptation to be micro-focused on hellfire, on the negative. Scripture always urges us to look at the bigger picture. Hence, the call in Hebrews is to Christian maturity. It is easy to miss in the above passage the positive, namely rousing "one another to love and good works," which is what we do when we gather together in communion to receive the grace we need to become Christ-like. Let's not forget that Christ is really and truly present to us in a four-fold way in the liturgy. The very first way He is really present is by our mere gathering together in His name. This reality St. Augustine referred to as the totus Christus, the total, or complete Christ- His Body (us), gathered together with Him as our head (priest). Another of the four ways Christ is really present, then, is in the person of the priest, who leads our worship to the Father in persona Christi capitis- in the person of Christ the head.

We must not fail to notice that even this forthright section of the letter ends with a positive exhortation, calling us to remember our faithfulness and the joy of faith, even in hardship:

Remember the days past when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a great contest of suffering. At times you were publicly exposed to abuse and affliction; at other times you associated yourselves with those so treated. You even joined in the sufferings of those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, knowing that you had a better and lasting possession. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence; it will have great recompense. You need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised. "For, after just a brief moment, he who is to come shall come; he shall not delay. But my just one shall live by faith, and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him." We are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and will possess life (10:32-39- underlining emphasis mine)

Another aspect of going to church that cannot be overlooked because it is fundamental, is the fact that it is precisely at Mass where we encounter the Lord. Pope Benedict XVI, in the second volume of his life of our Lord, writing about Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem captures this perfectly:
The Church greets the Lord in the Holy Eucharist as the one who is coming now, the one who has entered into her midst. At the same time, she greets him as the one who continues to come, the one who leads us toward his coming. As pilgrims, we go up to him; as a pilgrim, he comes to us and takes us up with him in his "ascent" to the Cross and Resurrection, to the definitive Jerusalem that is already growing in the midst of this world in the communion that unites us with his body (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week- From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pgs 10-11)
Who wants to miss out on that? As Annie Dillard wrote about going to church in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters: "Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews."

Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare ye the way for the kingdom

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