A common poor joke during my childhood was the “Catholic aerobics” we did at Mass: stand up-sit down-kneel-stand up-sit down-kneel. Now, I know that each posture has a meaning: we stand for the Gospel because it is Jesus speaking to us. (Would you sit if Jesus was in the room?) We kneel before God in the Blessed Sacrament. The postures have meaning and purpose. But the joke brings up a broader and interesting question: why all the ritual? Why does it matter what I see or touch or smell while I’m worshiping God?
Why? Because we are not souls alone. We are souls and bodies, together. God made both, and both are “us”.
Jesus knew this, of course, and He lived it. He used physical things all the time. He rubbed mud on the eyes of a blind man. He was baptized by water, through a physical, outward sign of the intangible, inward reality. It’s important to note that He didn’t have to use them. He also healed a solder’s servant’s daughter without seeing or touching her. But much of the time, he worked through physical objects. He consciously chose to work that way.
And Jesus taught His Church to work that way. He taught the apostles, who passed on everything they were taught, in writing and by oral tradition, to their successors. The Catholic Church has understood, from the beginning, the importance of ritual. She knows that we need those “smells and bells”, as some put it.
During Advent, we’re preparing for Christmas. What does Christmas celebrate? The birth of Jesus, the Son of God who incarnated or took on flesh, not as a suit of clothes but as part of His Self. During that season of preparation, we need the physical things. We need to smell pine and candle smoke. We need to hear bells. We need to touch the figures as we set up our manger scene.
During Lent, we’re preparing for Easter. What does Easter celebrate? The death and resurrection of Christ. How does the Son of God die? By having a body. If it’s not His body, truly, then is He sacrificing anything? If He’s just crashing the rental car, the crucifixion is somehow less. We need to recognize that, in our own bodies. We need to touch a cross with our fingers. We need to smell the incense. We need to see the crown of thorns, the stations of the cross, the blood on the corpus.
Throughout the year, we need to be physically involved. We need to not just kneel in our hearts before God, but kneel with our bodies, if we can. We need to touch and taste the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ.
These things don’t do anything for God. They don’t add something to Him or give Him something He needs. Rather, they give us something we need–a physical aspect to our faith that involves the body and, perhaps, through the body help focus and guide our spirits. They give us a means for our bodies to worship as well as our minds. They are there, too, to clue us in–to warn our too-often inattentive spirits that tremendous things are happening before us. We may see only the same priest we see every week, but we are really hearing the words of Christ. We may see only bread, but we are receiving our God. We may see only statues of angels, but we are surrounded by a very real heavenly host. These seemingly simple things–candles and hymnals and statues–are, perhaps, all we’re able to handle for now. We may sing with our small human voices and light our tiny candles, but we are joining in a choir and a service that has been going on since the beginning–one that shall continue forever.
Copyright 2014, Joe Wetterling