Tag Archives: sacrament

Actually, THIS is the Greatest Show: The Circus and the Mass

I’m posting all the lyrics to the opener to the show here, interspersed with commentary,  (I don’t have a video clip to share; here’s the official song, though), which I won’t do for the rest of the posts. It is an impressive, attention-getting opening and closing, and from the little bit I said about ritual, it marks the doorway in and out of a liminal space; it gets the audience charged up and prepared to enter into a different world. And I couldn’t help thinking, as a Catholic, “This is what mass should be like!” (Sorry, this one is going to be more relevant to those in high-liturgical churches).

And I mean that seriously. If you believed what Catholics profess, then the Mass should be “the greatest show.” It should be a liminal moment where “the impossible comes true.” “It’s everything you ever want. It’s everything you ever need. It’s here right in front of you. This is where you want to be.”

Look, I know that’s probably not your weekly or daily experience. It’s not mine, unless I’m really focused on the meaning of what we’re doing. But consider what we claim to be true about what happens when we get together:

  • The God who creates and sustains everything meets with us.
  • We recall that God has mercy on us for everything we do wrong.
  • We hear God speak to us through sacred Scripture and preaching.
  • God changes simple bread and wine we bring into His body and his blood in a participation in the sacrifice of God’s own Son to reconcile us to Him.
  • We eat the Body and Blood so that we can be united with God.

If we understand God as the all-powerful Creator of all things and also understand this all as an expression of God’s intense love for each of, specifically, well, that’s a lot more “impossible comes true” than tigers, elephants and stunts.

I already talked about the power of ritual to lead us to a transcendent reality. Just look throughout these lyrics at how strongly that liminality is evoked. And, if you profess that the ultimate purpose of life is union with God, and that this is the one path to get there, the hunger in the first verse is understandable, tangible.

Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for (woah)
Been searching in the dark, your sweat soaking through the floor (woah)
And buried in your bones there’s an ache that you can’t ignore
That “ache you can’t ignore” evokes St. Augustine’s famous line in his Confessions: “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Taking your breath, stealing your mind
And all that was real is left behind
Maybe it goes without saying that that one line tips the hand that this song is about the circus, about an empty show, rather than about ritual.
Don’t fight it, it’s coming for you, running at ya
It’s only this moment, don’t care what comes after
Your fever dream, can’t you see it getting closer
Just surrender ’cause you feel the feeling taking over
It’s fire, it’s freedom, it’s flooding open
It’s a preacher in the pulpit and you’ll find devotion
Besides the obvious religious allusion of the last line, there is a long history of Christian mystics reporting ecstatic personal encounters with the holy that sound much like this.
There’s something breaking at the brick of every wall it’s holding I’ll let you now
So tell me do you wanna go?
Where it’s covered in all the colored lights
Where the runaways are running the night
Impossible comes true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show
We light it up, we won’t come down
And the sun can’t stop us now
Watching it come true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show
colossal we come these renegades in the ring
(Woah) where the lost get found in the crown of the circus king
Lost get found – another bit analogy in Christian literature, echoing Jesus’ declaration that He is the good shepherd that searches for his lost sheep.
Don’t fight it, it’s coming for you, running at ya
It’s only this moment, don’t care what comes after
It’s blinding outside and I think that you know
Just surrender ’cause you’re calling and you wanna go
Where it’s covered in all the colored lights
Where the runaways are running the night
Impossible comes true, intoxicating you
Oh, this is the greatest show
We light it up, we won’t come down
And the sun can’t stop us now
Watching it come true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show
A note on the “colored lights.” One of the things that sets spectacles like circuses, sports and shows apart is the sensory overload of colors and lights. Recall that Christian churches have often tried to design their sacred space with stained glass and bright candlelight. While this is now more about consistency with earlier tradition, at the time, those were the “high-tech” means of “wowing” a crowd.
It’s everything you ever want
It’s everything you ever need
And it’s here right in front of you
This is where you wanna be (this is where you wanna be)
It’s everything you ever want
It’s everything you ever need
And it’s here right in front of you
This is where you wanna be
This is where you wanna be
This bridge, repeated like a religious chant, is one that has far more truth for religious ritual than a show.
When it’s covered in all the colored lights
Where the runaways are running the night
Impossible comes true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show
We light it up, we won’t come down
And the sun can’t stop us now
Watching it come true, it’s taking over you
This is the greatest show
When it’s covered in all the colored lights
Where the runaways are running the night
Impossible comes true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show
We light it up, we won’t come down
And the walls can’t stop us now
I’m watching it come true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show
‘Cause everything you want is right in front of you
And you see the impossible is coming true
And the walls can’t stop us (now) now, yeah
This is the greatest show (oh!)
This is the greatest show (Oh!)
This is the greatest show (oh!)
This is the greatest show (oh!)
This is the greatest show (Oh!)
This is the greatest show (oh!)
(This is the greatest show)
This is the greatest show (oh!)
This is the greatest show!
So listen to this song and think about what a mass would look like that lived up to the claims this song makes. What we profess we believe meets this over-the-top standard. What we deliver as a Church seldom does, and that’s usually because the community, which both performs and attends, ceases to remember how profound we proclaim it to be. It’s also because we have (usually) sapped the “liminality” out of the mass through familiarity and safe choices. But that fails to render it any less true that this really is the greatest show.
We should strive for worship that warrants the lyrics of this song.
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Why Ashley Madison is a bigger threat to sacramental marriage than gay couples are

I’m more than a little disappointed. It was just a few months ago that Christians in general and Catholics in particular were up in arms about the “threat to marriage” posed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. And yet, now that a much more real threat to sacramental marriage has hit the front page, there’s mostly silence from those same folks. I’m talking about the data leak of users of a site called Ashley Madison, which is dedicated to helping married men and women find someone with whom to have an affair.

Just to be clear, the leak isn’t the threat. Nor is the public shaming of those found to be users of the site – although that element of the leak’s coverage seems to speak to our baser interests in seeing the humiliation of others. But, no, the threat to sacramental marriage is the mindset of the guy who launched the site, and like most threats, it actually brings a great opportunity to testify to the truth.

The Washington Post recently profiled the founder of Ashley Madison, Noel Biderman, and his views on marriage. Essentially, his belief is that lifelong monogamy is against our nature, it’s something that we are not wired for (especially men), that when sexual attraction abates, we have to choose between celibacy/unhappiness, divorce and infidelity, and that the latter is better for individuals, families and societies than is divorce. So, by facilitating the sort of adulterous arrangement that is often seen as an tacitly accepted practice in many cultures, Biderman’s site “saves” marriages.

Well.

This is a great moment for Catholics to correct the misperceptions about sacramental marriage and profess a relatively new, radical, and powerfully attractive element of our faith. But we don’t seem to be interested. As the slow fastball crosses the middle of the plate, our bat is on our collective shoulder. 

So.

I suspect the implicit assumption of many (including many Catholics) is that Biderman’s general premise is true, and that the Christian response (especially the Catholic one) is that we should settle for the unhappy, celibate faithfulness. And that would be wrong on at least three counts.

But before I get there, let me detour for a moment. There was an interesting long read about marriage and relationships this week that had nothing to do with Ashley Madison. In Huffington Post’sLove in the Age of Big Data,” Eve Fairbanks digs deep into the work of John Gottman and his wife, Julie Schwartz Gottman, who have spent decades developing a method to create happy couples. If you’ve paid attention to theories of love and relationships you have probably heard about Gottman, who claims to be able to predict with remarkable accuracy whether a couple will get divorced based on listening to them talk together for only a brief time. The article is worth reading, and I don’t have any problems with Gottman’s findings as described. I mention this here, though, because of one passage that I found very revealing, not about Gottman or even the author but about us:

Simon May, a British philosopher who has studied the development of beliefs about love over two millennia of Western culture, suggests that we’ve placed vastly more importance on finding love since the retreat of Christianity and the rise of relativism. “Human love,” he writes in his magisterial Love: A History, “is widely tasked with achieving what once only divine love was thought capable of: to be our ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment.” The grounding we used to find in devotion to ideals like nationalism or communism, or in our faith in an ever-caring Shepherd, we now seek from individual, fickle human beings.

After I read May’s theory that love “is now the West’s undeclared religion,” I began to see evidence of it everywhere. “When you get down to it … [love is] the only purpose grand enough for a human life,” writes Sue Monk Kidd in The Secret Life of Bees. At funerals, we praise the way the deceased person loved as the ultimate sign that his life had meaning. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his Supreme Court opinion legalizing gay marriage nationally, identified marriage as the ultimate wellspring of all the other essential human joys, from “expression” to “spirituality,” while Sheryl Sandberg counsels young women that their choice of a mate is the most important decision of their lives. According to May, we no longer view love as “the rarest of exceptions,” as older cultures did, “but as a possibility open to practically all who have faith in it.”

What’s fascinating to me as a Catholic is that, just as our culture invests in romantic love the claim of holiness in a way that is idolatrous, that puts it in the role that only God can fill, a voice from the Church answers not in a defiant denial but in a “Yes and…” Romantic love is divine. Not as a god of its own, but as a unique representation of who God is and what God wants of us. And the radical (soft? liberal?) voice that delivered that message was Saint John Paul II.

This wasn’t an offhand remark at the end of an interview. This was the basis of a message that John Paul II delivered in more than 125 weekly audiences, a little at a time, pulled out of a manuscript titled “Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.” (N.B. You can buy it, but you’re so much better off picking up Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners, which is very readable.) Those who have studied the pope’s teachings more closely than I have believe that this point of doctrine has more power to reshape the future of the faith than anything since Vatican II, and just about everybody agrees that not only does the world at large not know about it, but the vast majority of faithful Catholics don’t even have a clue.

So what does the post-Theology of the Body Church have to say to Ashley Madison and its founder?

First, it shows a false understanding of who we are as humans. The prevailing mindset is that humanity is unable to transcend its fundamental animal nature. In contrast, the Church teaches that we have woven together natural and supernatural essence. We are built for more than just animalistic existence; we are built to house God within us, and through that spirituality we can avoid the trap Biderman believes is inevitable. (This, by the way, isn’t new with John Paul II.)

Second, it reduces marriage to an extended sexual contract. I say “reduces” intentionally, because John Paul II has much to say about the glory of sexuality within sacramental marriage (which I will get to in a minute). While some might claim the positive alternative to the Ashley Madison mindset is a “traditional marriage” that anchors society with a stabilizing core institution of family definition, this in reality is trading one too-small view for another. Marriage is not just about sex, nor is it just about stable family. It is about the power of love to transcend ourselves and become better versions of who we thought ourselves to be through willing self-sacrifice. This is the part that the philosopher May gets at least partly right. The most successful couples recognize that the most meaningful part of their life is loving their beloved by helping him or her become a better person and, in the process, becoming better themselves. I don’t know if Gottman goes that far. I recommend another author and therapist who does, though: Gregory Popcak. While I will cite another of his books below, his very best, and also, interestingly the only one not written from an overt faith perspective, is The Exceptional Seven Percent. Regardless of where you stand from a faith perspective, pick this book up. You will see his research and experience leads to a model where the very happiest couples strive to make their partner better while becoming better people themselves.

Finally, sacramental marriage reflects who God is in unique and transforming ways. In short, John Paul II says, the ecstasy and self-giving of married love prefigures faintly the way God loves us. And, yes, that includes the ecstasy of sex. (I know, you were waiting for me to come back to that.) If you don’t believe me, read the West book or John Paul II’s original teaching on the importance and meaning of great sex. Or better yet, pick up Popcak’s Holy Sex. You will probably be surprised.

In the wake of Ashley Madison, we should be making these points loudly and often. We were not made to live in inevitable gloom of monotony or the sickly spark of adultery. Marriage was made to transform us for the better, not just trap us into a long-term contract like a devious cell phone provider. Sex isn’t bad; it’s actually so good you won’t believe it. Those are messages that need to be heard, especially by those who think the only mistake of Ashley Madison users was getting caught.

And, I have to say, though the Church remains clear on the sacrament of marriage being reserved for one man and one woman (note JPII’s title), I would argue that same sex couples who aspire to this vision of marriage aren’t a threat; a culture that trains couples to settle for a marriage that is so much less is.

Love wins. Exclusion doesn’t.

My friend Mario, who has a rare zeal for God, shared with loving concern with his Catholic Facebook friends who had shown support for the recent SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality a story from the blog “Courageous Priest”, a post about the archbishop of Detroit implying, and a theologian at a Detroit seminary stating, that those Catholics who promote gay marriage should not try to take Communion because they may be denied it by their priest. The theologian who stated this had previously made the same point about politicians who support pro-abortion policies.

Let me start by conceding the obvious: both abortion and gay marriage are against the teaching of the Church. Both are part of Catholic social doctrine, a very comprehensive set of principles about how Catholics can best live their faith that has been laid out in papal encyclicals, vatican decrees, and statements by national conferences of bishops. The pope’s recent encyclical, Laudato si, which I had planned to write about before all this came up and still plan to get to eventually, adds a good bit about ecology and the environment to this same body of doctrine, which evolves to reflect the issues of the day.

What may be fuzzier for people on all sides is that this doctrine is not dogma; that is, it is not a truth so essential to the faith that you cannot call yourself a Catholic and still deny it. The Trinity is a dogma. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is a dogma. If you don’t believe those things to be true, you aren’t really a Catholic. But you can believe all those things and prayerfully disagree with Catholic social thought, I have learned*. And you would still be Catholic. Some would disagree with me on that, although teaching documents of the Church have said otherwise.

Let me give you four reasons why threatening to withhold communion for those who disagree on non-dogmatic doctrine is not only bad practice but bad theology.

  1. It is inconsistently applied and therefore unjust. In addition to threats on abortion and gay marriage supporters, Church law would also indicate that divorced and remarried couples, and indeed couples who use artificial contraception, are cohabitating or have had premarital sex, ought to confess those sins and change their behavior before receiving communion. I see few bishops stand on that point. Earlier this week, the pope implied to children in Turin that those who either manufacture weapons or invest in weapons manufacturers cannot really call themselves Christian, but I have heard no bishop state that gun manufacturers, traders, or people with stick in such companies be denied communion. Nor have I heard such threats toward those who support the death penalty (on which the Church has longstanding opposition and on which SCOTUS ruled today with very little notice by the Church), nor those who invest in polluting companies, those who don’t recycle, those who support supply-side economics, those who withhold their money from the poor…you get the picture. If the standard is that those who do or support things against Church teaching should not partake in Communion, the line to receive will be very short. And you may have trouble finding ministers to distribute it. But if the standard is going to be applied, it’s not just to pick and choose among those guilty of breaking the same weight of doctrine.
  2. It is ineffective. I looked up what a grave sin was, and what I noticed first was that it takes you away from charity, the divine gift of love for God, neighbor and creation. What struck me more than anything last week was that when Father James Martin, S.J., spoke up that we Catholics should respond to this decision by loving our gay brothers and sisters as our first, foremost, and only response, people I hold dear who had written off organized religion perked up, because they saw in Martin’s call what they had been told Jesus was all about. They had been told it, but the Church hadn’t delivered anything to prove it, until then. That’s evangelism – that’s communicating the good news that is God’s desire for us. That’s our one calling as believers. And focusing on pushing people out of Communion line is its antithesis. It sparks no love, not in the righteous, not in the sinner. Whichever that may be. Everything we do should be to promote love, to promote God.
  3. It misunderstands our role in God’s story. The Gospels end with a command to the disciples: Go preach the Good News to everyone. That Good News is that God loves us so much that the worst we can do to Him is completely incapable of putting a dent in that love. Throughout history there is a tension between the grace of that love and the Justice of law, and as I pray daily, read Scripture daily, and put myself in His presence through the sacraments I have at a painfully slow pace grown in realizing that God’s story is about taking the side of grace, again and again, especially with those who the world marginalizes. That’s our job. Get them, get everyone in the door of God’s love, and let their prayer, study and sacrament make them better people. When we focus on laying down laws, we not only push away those we should be pulling, but we take on as our role the purifying job that is not ours but God’s. To those who would argue that God’s holiness is underappreciated, that we should pay more attention to purifying ourselves and dressing our Sunday best before we dare approach Him, I say this: if that’s what God wanted, to only be touched by the pure and clean, He wouldn’t have been born in a barn. He wouldn’t have picked such flawed followers. He wouldn’t have come back for us again and again and again. When we take the attitude that we need to be right before we come to God, we are the child who locks herself in her room until the artwork is perfect for her father, thereby losing an afternoon without ever producing a satisfactory work for a father who would have been ecstatic with a scribble and a hug.
  4. It misunderstands the Eucharist. We Catholics differ from our Protestant and evangelical brothers and sisters in a few ways, but none more than our belief in the mystical presence of God in the sacraments and their power to transform us. We need to recapture the faith in those sacraments by recognizing that they work on us. To deny them to someone who isn’t perfect in our eyes is to tell someone they need to be well before they go to the doctor. If we see a fellow believer that we think is an error, communion isn’t the thing we withhold, it’s the thing we should urge them toward. And we should go with them, in case the log in our own eye is bigger than the splinter in theirs.

I believe in my heart that there are proponents of the “no-bread-for-you” approach who do that out of reverence for and recognition of how holy God is and how much He deserves. I believe that there are proponents of that approach convinced that tough love will work, that denying fellow believers access to grace will bring them around to the Church’s way of teaching. And they may be right. But prayerfully, my faith today tells me that God says what He has said from the beginning, said to Abram and Moses and Mary and John and said from the cross and in the upper room: Love wins.
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*Here’s an articulation of prayerful disagreement in Catholic social thought. I will look for one that isn’t in America since I know that carries little weight with those on the right. This document from the USCCB was very helpful to me in talking about the formation of conscience. Maybe that’s better.