One unfortunate trend in Protestantism is the growth of a denomination which calls itself by various names: Bedside Baptist, Pillow Presbyterian, or the Church of the Holy Comforter. Put in old-fashioned terms, it means playing hooky from church on Sunday morning. Though it is peripherally related in nature to the 1960’s “turn on, tune in and drop out” mindset (minus the psychedelic drugs, of course), it claims to have a Biblical basis. Proponents point to Matthew 18:20, where the Savior assured His disciples that “where two or three are gathered together in My name, there I am in the midst of them.” This, they claim, is divine endorsement of their intention to stay home on Sundays. Members of this denominational persuasion just don’t get the point of “going to church.” Many are disillusioned with institutional churches, and have convinced themselves that “porch church” is just as good as the real thing. They can watch a televangelist or “participate” in an online church service, or they can just read their Bible and sing a few hymns with family members – all without guilt, because the Bible nowhere tells us how often we have to go to church.
You can see where this train of thought has led the Protestant world – fewer folks are sitting in the pews on Sundays. Those who have bought into the individualistic Just-Me-And-Jesus approach to Christianity and are now taking it to its logical conclusion are a hard sell as far as church attendance goes. “I don’t attend church because I am the church,” they’ll tell you. “I can worship God wherever I am; after all, He lives in my heart! I don’t need to go to a particular building to see Him!” Institutional churches, of course, aren’t too terribly pleased with this way of thinking, but far be it from them to insist that Christians HAVE TO be inside the building on Sunday mornings. While a real Christian will certainly WANT to come to church on Sunday, they will tell you, there’s no Biblical reason why he HAS TO. That, after all, is one of the many things wrong with the Catholic Church, which insists that attendance at Mass is an “obligation.” NOWHERE, Protestants will gladly explain to you, does the Bible say that church attendance is an obligation. The Catholic Church is sometimes portrayed as the religious equivalent of a totalitarian regime, forcing the terrorized population to knuckle under and show up on Sundays and Holy Days on pain of hellfire. My Moody Bible Institute friend told me of a relative of hers, a former Catholic, who was traumatized as a child by nuns who told her she would go to hell if she missed Mass. Such a crime, my friend tsk-tsked, since the Bible NOWHERE tells us that we HAVE TO go to church.
And she’s quite right – there is no 11th Commandment along the lines of “Thou shalt attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days.” The closest the Bible comes to insisting on church attendance is Hebrews 10:23-25: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” – really underwhelming support for the Mass obligation. Of course, the book of Acts does tell us that the first Christians “devoted themselves to (a) the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, (b) to the breaking of bread and to prayer,” which Catholics believe was the Mass [(a) the Liturgy of the Word and (b) the Liturgy of the Eucharist]. Acts also says that Christians came together “on the first day of the week to break bread.” Put those two together and you certainly have a Biblical precedent for meeting on Sunday for Mass, but still no obligation. So did the tyrannical Catholic Church just make this stuff up about you having to get your tired hiney into a pew on Sunday morning?
I’ll answer that question with a question: Did your parents make that stuff up about your having to be home by 10 on a school night, and by 11 on the weekend – and no, you couldn’t eat all the ice cream you wanted before dinner? Well, if by that I mean did they make the decision to establish those rules? – yes, they did. But, after all, they’re your parents – you would expect your folks to make rules to keep you safe and healthy. That’s an aspect of parental rights – your mom and dad have the right to tell you what you have to do. And in that same fashion, the Catholic Church – our mother – has the parental right and obligation to make rules to keep us safe and healthy.
The Church is our mother? She is the bride of Christ, of course, and she nurtures the children of God. The idea of the Church as our mother goes back to the Old Testament. God is portrayed allegorically as a man who loves and marries a woman who betrays Him over and over (Jer 3, Hosea 2). Yet Isaiah 54 tells the story of how God will call back His spouse, His people “Zion” (Jerusalem), “never to rebuke you again.” This spouse in her fruitfulness will be no longer barren, but will bear her Husband many children – she will “spread out to the right and to the left,” and her “descendants will dispossess nations.” St. Paul proclaims the fulfillment of these verses in Galatians 4, calling “the Heavenly Jerusalem” our mother. The New Testament people of God make up the Heavenly Jerusalem. They are the Church, the bride of Christ, and this Church corporately brings forth new believers. Third-century bishop and martyr Cyprian of Carthage elaborated on this:
…one is not born by the imposition of hands when he receives the Holy Ghost, but in baptism, that so, being already born, he may receive the Holy Spirit, even as it happened in the first man Adam. For first God formed him, and then breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. For the Spirit cannot be received, unless he who receives first have an existence. But as the birth of Christians is in baptism, while the generation and sanctification of baptism are with the spouse of Christ alone, who is able spiritually to conceive and to bear sons to God, where and of whom and to whom is he born, who is not a son of the Church, so as that he should have God as his Father, before he has had the Church for his Mother?
As our parent, the Church has an obligation to “bring us up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” and this she cannot do if we do not present ourselves to be taught by her. The Mass obligation, Biblically speaking, is a combination of two passages of Scripture, the above-mentioned Hebrews 10:23-25 (“not forsaking our own assembling together”) and another verse from Hebrews, in chapter 13, verse 17:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.”
The Church, our mother, keeps watch over our souls, and for that reason has every right to insist on our presence at Mass. Some children, of course, do view parental authority as they would a totalitarian regime. A lot of Protestant objections to the parental aspect of the Church are juvenile as well, running the gamut from adolescent rage to predictable pubescent peevishness. “That old guy in Rome can’t tell me what to think!” “I worship God in my own way – no human being comes between me and Jesus!” “I can read the Bible for myself!” Rebellious children of rebellious parents, Protestants have ascribed authority to a Book, which allows them to appear to address the authority issue while merely deferring it – for no Book, not even the God-breathed Holy Scriptures, can explain itself to us. Authority, under the Protestant system, is left up to the individual, who interprets the Bible for himself. However, according to the Bible, Jesus gave His authority to His Church (Lk 10:16, Mt 18:17-18, Acts 16:4, 2 Thess 3:14, Titus 2:15, 1 Jn 4:6), we have been instructed to obey our leaders (Heb 13:17), and those leaders have every right to command us to be present at Mass.
“The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood” – so says the Church. If the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist are all that the Church says they are, she would be committing child neglect if she did not require us to make ourselves available for their celebration. The Church is a good mother. She loves us, and she keeps watch over our souls.
On the memorial of Blessed Pope John XXIII
Deo omnis gloria!