One of my fondest hopes after I became Catholic was that I could induce somebody, anybody really, to come along with me to Mass, so that I could introduce them to the treasures that I had found there. All my Protestant life I had heard tales about the soul-numbing liturgy, semi-pagan rituals and man-made doctrines on parade at the local Catholic parish every Sunday morning; the truth could not have been much farther from the rumors. Unfortunately, all the Protestants I knew had also heard those rumors all their lives, and they put great stock in them, and so could not be persuaded to accompany me to what they were sure must be an occasion of great divine displeasure. I can’t really blame them – at the first Mass I attended, I (no joke) made darn certain that I sat in the seat nearest the exit, just in case….
So I would like to take you on a virtual tour of the Mass, one which I hope will be a lot less “threatening” and therefore one which I hope many will be willing to accompany me on. But in order to take this trip with me, you will need to leave your preconceptions behind. As Chesterton said, “The tourist sees what he has come to see.” The “Roman Catholicism” class at the local Baptist university routinely sends its members round to the Catholic parishes to experience firsthand the horrors of papist idolatry. After sitting through the same Mass that I sit through, they leave – unmoved by the Scriptures they hear (far, far more Scripture is read in a Catholic parish on a Sunday morning than was ever read at my old Baptist church) – unmoved by the obvious devotion of the faithful, and most incredibly, unmoved by the Real Presence of the Lord Whom they as Baptists seek to follow with all their hearts. What do they see? What they came to see – papist idolatry.
So it’s no use coming with me if you won’t open your mind and your heart to what is actually going on at the Mass. Don’t let all the standing up and sitting down and kneeling and genuflecting and making the sign of the Cross put you off – my kids and I learned to do these things over time. At your first Mass, you just rise when everyone else rises and sit when everyone else sits. As most Catholics aren’t gun-toting fanatics, no one will shoot you if you don’t kneel or genuflect or bless yourself with holy water. It’s okay – we understand. The question is, do you? Why the prejudice against holy water, kneeling and genuflection?
I know, I know, dead rituals! We are to worship God in Spirit and in truth! Where’s the holy water in that verse??
This all stems from a fundamental difference in the way Evangelicals and Catholics view baptism. To Evangelicals, baptism is an ordinance. Jesus commanded that they be baptized, so they get baptized in obedience to the Lord’s command. It’s a sign to the world that they have decided to follow Jesus, and a symbol of how they have died to sin and been buried with Christ, rising to new life and going forth to live for Him. To Catholics, baptism is all that (except the “ordinance” part) and more. To Catholics, baptism is a sacrament (“an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.”) We believe, in accordance with Gal. 3: 26-27, 1 Cor. 12:13, Acts 2:37-38, Acts 22:12-16, Titus 3:4-7, and 1 Pet 3:20-21, that we are baptized into Christ, into one body, that we are baptized for the remission of our sins, and that baptism is what starts the process of our salvation. As you can see, our baptism is to us a Pretty Big Deal. At the time of our baptism we make (or our parents make for us) baptismal vows, vows which actually can be traced back to the time of the early Christians:
V. Do you reject Satan?
R. I do.
V. And all his works?
R. I do.
V. And all his empty promises?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
R. I do.
V. God, the all-powerful Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and forgiven all our sins. May He also keep us faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
Catholics take these vows very seriously. We remember them every time we come to Mass, by dipping our fingers into the baptismal font or holy water font and blessing ourselves in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This isn’t a superstitious belief in magical water; this is a Christian belief in Christ’s promises! “By this Holy water and by your Precious Blood, wash away all my sins, O Lord” is a prayer many pray as they bless themselves at the font – based upon Acts 22:16: “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” and Ephesians 1:7: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.” See, these things are more Biblical than you thought!
Making the sign of the cross, by the way, also goes back to the time of the early Christians. Originally the sign was traced on one’s forehead; nowadays it covers more territory, but the intent is the same. It is a sign to the world that we belong to Christ Crucified, as well as a reminder to us that we have been crucified with Christ. Just as Protestants often wear a cross, Catholics bless themselves with the sign of the cross. Nothing wrong with that, you’ve got to admit. If making the sign of the cross is wrong because it’s not mentioned in Holy Scripture, so is wearing a cross as a piece of jewelry – that’s not in Scripture, either. You just think about that for a while!
So when you follow me into Mass, I’m going to dip my fingers in the font and bless myself with holy water, remembering my baptismal vows to renounce Satan and follow Jesus. Then I’m going to genuflect. If you’re walking behind me, don’t fall over me. Just like the use of holy water, this isn’t some superstitious rite. I believe with my entire heart and soul that my Savior is literally present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharist is reserved in what we call the Tabernacle, and it is before that Holy Presence in the Tabernacle that I am humbling myself – as commanded in James 4:10 and 1 Peter 5:6. You, as a Protestant, believe that “every knee shall bow,” right? If you knew that Jesus in the Flesh was there before you, I dare say you’d genuflect, too.
We kneel just as Jesus knelt to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk 22:41). We stand at different times during the Mass to show respect, during the processional and before the Gospel is read, for example. We sit down because we’re tired.
So basically Mass will be more of a workout than what you’re used to on Sunday morning, but well worth it, I think. I hope you’ll stick with me! Next post we’ll talk about why you might need to bring a handkerchief or two.
On the memorial of St. Willibrord
Deo omnis gloria!