The Medium is the Message

Friends often ask me why, after all these years, we still go through the weekly ordeal of getting our large, rambunctious family off to Mass.

I’ll be the first to admit it’s an ordeal. We usually attend the 9:00 a.m. Mass because of First Communion classes taught then (our five kids range in age from 7 to 18). That means getting up early on a Sunday morning… dragging recalcitrant, barely-conscious teenagers out of bed, usually kicking and screaming… hurriedly getting dressed… searching for shoes and dresses and lost hair ribbons for the girls… nagging and kvetching and pleading and threatening… driving 10 miles to our parish church… then scurrying in, often late, to squeeze into a pew. Yet we do it… week after week, month after month, year after year. We haven’t “broken the spell,” in the words of atheist writer Daniel Dennett’s telling phrase.

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In many ways, we’re lucky. We belong to a very affluent, involved parish in a nearby seaside town. The church sits on the bluff overlooking the town harbor. It’s a very modern (too modern!) church in the “theatre in the round” style with a second-story balcony that even has movie-theatre style seats usually only found in Protestant churches (and which make you feel like you’re watching an opera, not worshiping God). The pastor is a gregarious, barrel-chested man in his mid-50s who is funny and engaging, occasionally profound, and who usually keeps even the teenagers’ attention during his sermon. Assisting him are three other priests – all of them likable and smart.

I hear the stories all the time about empty Catholic churches with the proverbial little old ladies and their rosary beads, but I have to say: the masses at our parish are usually packed. Business people, surfer dudes, moms and kids, they’re all there, mingling after Mass, chatting with the priests, scarfing down donuts. They, too, somehow make the effort to get up every Sunday morning and show up.

The Catholic Mass is quite unlike a typical evangelical church service. For one thing, the sermon is rarely as polished or as long as in a Protestant church, and not given nearly as much emphasis. The music, too, can be perfunctory, although in our parish it’s actually very good and performed by dedicated professional musicians. Most obviously, the entire focus of the Catholic service is on the actual ritual of the Mass itself – an ancient series of gestures and prayers that, in its basic outline, goes back to the Last Supper and the dawn of Christianity.

In our parish church, as in most Catholic churches, the entire building focuses on two elements that draw your eyes to them: A large altar, often made of stone (conspicuously not a table!)… and, above it, an enormous crucifix (not a bare cross) with a typically gruesome and lifelike representation of Jesus dying on it. At our church, the silver crucifix above the altar is truly a work of art, enormous and lifelike, suspended directly above the altar with wires and a large steel bar connected to the ceiling.

Thus, the architecture and design of Catholic churches themselves testify to what is going on in the Catholic Mass: It is a ritualized memorial of the death of Jesus Christ on Calvary. That is the entire focus and purpose of the Catholic Mass. Everything else is secondary – the scripture readings, the sermon, the extra prayers. The entire point of this ancient ritual is to memorialize, re-present and offer to God the act of self-sacrifice that Christians believe Jesus performed on the Cross. The priest reenacts the Last Supper – repeating the Words of Institution found in the scriptural accounts – but his purpose in doing so is to dramatize, as an act of worship, how Jesus consciously and willingly went to his own death.

For Catholics, in other words, the medium really is the message. The Gospel is proclaimed, not with words, but with deeds. As the apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”(1 Cor. 11:25).

Catholics perform this ritual, not weekly, but daily – in hundreds of thousands of churches around the world, in abbeys and convents, hospitals and schools, universities and orphanages. A Mass is celebrated before, during or after virtually every significant event whenever Catholics are involved. At a wedding or funeral. At the start of a school year. At the beginning of a new legislative session.

In a sense, evangelical and atheist critics are correct: The Mass is the sole surviving example of magic in a faithless, machine-dominated world. It’s a moment of enchantment when hard-nosed businessmen and sex-obsessed teenagers alike encounter the awesome mystery of God “really present” on earth.

Whether brainwashed as Daniel Dennett says, or merely faithful to the ancient command of Christ to “do this in memory of me,” Catholic saints and sinners, skeptics and pious believers, continue to gather for this ancient rite. It is as Jesus said it would be: a way of remembering. And whatever else we do, every Sunday morning, we drag ourselves out of bed, meet with others like us, in an unbroken chain that stretches back 2,000 years in time, and remember.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).