Is the Mass Just Like Everywhere Else?

As a girl, one of my quirks was a fondness for wearing hats.  Another quirk: I liked to read old etiquette books.  I was not so much interested in having good manners as in reading about them, and especially about the customs of the past. One rule I still remember, because I did not like it, is that when a lady hosts a party in her home, she’s the only lady present who does not wear a hat.

The reasoning: A woman of that era put on her hat when she went out.  And thus in another publication I read a handy tip for the housewife frequently plagued by unwanted visitors: Keep your hat and gloves by the door.  When the doorbell rings, grab them before you open.  If your guest is one you’d rather not invite inside, apologize and explain, waving your accessories, that you were just on your way out and can’t have visitors.  If your guest is wanted, set hat and gloves back down on the hall table and declare what lovely timing! I was just coming home!

The duplicity is no good, but the underlying theme fascinates me: There’s an imaginary line between “home” and “everywhere else,” and when a lady crosses that line, something about her changes – a visible sign to the world.

This Place is Different

This Advent several of my internet girl friends are taking what I jokingly call the “Mantilla Challenge”. Their motivations vary, but the core of the challenge is this: Cover your head during Mass during Advent.

Hat-person that I am, I can’t think straight about the Great Veil Debates.  I always end up back at “What’s not to love about putting something on your head?” I made no promise to join in the challenge, but allowed that if the weather were cold, I might find myself sporting my new black felt hat by happy coincidence.

But if there is one smidge of theological depth to my thinking in favor of chapel veils and the like, it comes back to the threshold rule: A Catholic church is unlike any other place on earth.

A Tourist in the Court of the King

As a lapsed Catholic, one of the pivotal moments in my return to the Church was the day I visited a historic Catholic parish as a tourist.  I crossed the threshold into the church, and I felt nothing.  No presence of God.  I knew then that I was in big trouble.

Some time and much soul-searching later, touring about on another trip, I visited a historic Episcopalian parish.  It was just a very beautiful, empty building.  This did not bother me – all I expected to find among the non-Catholics was good architecture, and that’s what I found. Then I visited the uninspiring modern Catholic parish across the road,  and immediately felt the Real Presence.  I was back on track.

It would be better if we made beautiful buildings to house our Lord, but it is the presence of God in the flesh that makes a Catholic church palpably different from any other.

Courtly Customs

Back to veils.  There are a handful of ladies in my parish who cover their heads during Mass.  I find this such an eloquent gesture, an outward sign that inside the parish church is not like other places.  We’re in the court of the King of the Universe.  There is reverence and awe, for something great and magnificent will happen here, and is happening here, that happens nowhere else.

I can’t bring myself to join them in the custom, for several reasons.  The most galling: In many parishes across the country, the Court of the King is barely distinguishable from a social hour.  Putting on a veil in order to stand around chatting with friends . . . I can’t do it.

What does this have to do with evangelization?

If Mass is exactly like every place else . . . why bother being Catholic?  And if Mass is something radically different – something worth dying for, even – why do I treat it like every place else?  If my liturgy is no more solemn than a county council meeting, and the nave of the church treated with less reverence than the public library, is it no wonder people think the Catholic faith is just a very noble social club?

Sanctifying the Stable without Stabling the Sacred

I like that God finds me in the every humdrum detail of my ordinary life.  I want one day for my thoughts while I do dishes, my conversation over coffee, the books I read and the games I play, all to be ordered in a way worthy of the Holy Family living in a backwater village with dust and chickens and chores.

But I don’t want to live only there.  God finds me among the chickens and I’m grateful; but I want to find God on His throne, too.  I want the parting of Heaven, that solemn moment when we sing Holy, Holy, Holy and God Himself descends to meet us . . . I want it to be more than just a very nice supper with friends.

And it is that.  And thus I am greatly appreciative of those who insist on putting out their best and most reverent for God on His throne.

Copyright © 2013, Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications. She writes about the Catholic faith at her Patheos blog, Sticking the Corners.

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