Church Experience #16 – April 24, 2011 – Easter Sunday
St. Jude Catholic Church
A Personal Challenge
First of all, let me take a moment and acknowledge and thank my Lord God for how much He has blessed me this year. I’m amazed at how much increase God gives to your faith, wisdom, and love, when you find new ways to serve Him and dedicate more of your time and focus to His Word. The ChurchSurfer project has already brought major blessings to my spiritual walk, and whether or not people read or like this blog, the benefits of holding myself to the commitment of visiting 50 different churches this year are mind-blowing. God is good, all the time, amen. So for Easter this year I decided to challenge myself a little bit by skipping (or should I say hopping?) the Easter church service that is so meaningful to us as (Protestant) Christians, and instead opt for a Catholic church service. Why is this challenging? Because going into the experience, I already know that as a non-Catholic I am not welcome to take Holy Communion at a Catholic church, nor do I agree with most of their doctrinal beliefs, which makes it particularly hard on such a significant day as Easter. So why even go to a Catholic church? Because I also know that like all Christian sects and denominations, there are true believers with a heart for Jesus inside the Catholic faith. What will be the big challenge? Trying to remain focused on the point of my blog, which is “Experiencing God through People”, and not falling into a rant session on the differences in doctrinal beliefs, which is so tempting with a subject matter that is at the core of your very being. What will be the outcome? Let’s find out (and I’m more than a little nervous)…
Laura and I pulled in to St. Jude Catholic Church about 30 minutes before the scheduled start time of the 10:30 AM mass service. We knew it would be crowded on Easter, so we wanted to make sure we could get a seat close enough to the front where we could easily see all that was going on. I snapped a couple of photos on the walk up to the building, which was a little longer than normal, considering I strategically parked close to the exit lane so that we could hopefully avoid the traffic leaving the service. As we approached the entrance, we were enthusiastically greeted by an eccentric grey-haired man who was doing his best to say “hello’s” and “good morning’s” to each one of the increasing volume of people headed in to the building. Upon entering the lobby area, we passed by the holy water bowl without taking part in whatever ritual it is used for, and headed on down the aisle of the sanctuary and into a pew, again without taking part in the Catholic ritual of bowing toward the altar (or crucifix?). I scanned the ornate room, taking in all the various decorations and symbols. There was a large crucifix on the front wall facing the congregation, bordered by floor-to-ceiling stained glass depictions of Jesus. There were candles burning all around the room, fresh flowers all about the altar and stage area, and off to the left of the pulpit was a statue of Mary with the baby Jesus in her arms. There were various tapestries and murals adorning the walls of the sanctuary, some appearing to be quite old, and most in the European Renaissance style. My mind wandered in and out of focus on various internal tug-of-war issues I was having about bringing my wife to a Catholic Easter service rather than one where we could actually partake in the communion.
The low hum of all the muted conversations around the room lulled me into deeper contemplations, which were then interrupted by the sight of kids in white robes passing by in the aisle on their way to the front to light more candles. They circled back to the rear of the room and joined a procession to the altar with the priests, who were holding a crucifer and a large gold-bound Bible. The musicians, which surprisingly (probably just because of my ignorance of Catholic services) included a 12 string guitar player, bass player, and two keyboard players, started the worship music, which had to be one of the oddest (using what I would consider “normal” contemporary praise or traditional hymns as the basis for comparison) and most unique sounding church music I’ve ever heard. We sang two songs, which I can only describe as “medieval synthpop hymn music” (you’d have to hear it to understand), and the priest then led the congregation in an opening prayer. The service continued through a series of Scripture readings, responsive readings, and songs, and then on to a baptism ceremony for some young children, which consisted of the priest gesturing the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the children and their parents, and then pouring holy water from a glass pitcher over the heads of the children and into a small baptismal reservoir. The children also received white bibs and candles as part of the ritual. Later in the service, the priests circled up and down the aisles with pitchers of holy water, flinging it onto the congregation with wooden utensils. As the water landed on each person they would quickly bow and motion the cross with their hand, starting from their forehead, down to their belly, and then side to side across their chest. The priests seemed visibly delighted to take part in this portion of the ceremony, and many in the congregation grinned as the water splashed them in random points around the head and shoulders. The service culminated with communion, with the priests either placing on the tongue or handing each member of the congregation a small wafer and then a sip from the chalice containing wine, after which the priest would methodically wipe the rim clean with a white cloth. After a closing blessing from the priest, the congregation was dismissed and people quickly filed out of the room with some gathering in small groups of conversation.
This church experience makes for a very difficult article to write. I’m not interested in using this platform to delve into the differences between Catholic and Protestant doctrine, even though I stared some of these issues directly in the eyes this week. From the standpoint of attempting to stay true to the purpose of this blog, which as stated above, is to write about experiencing God through people…I’m completely at a loss and unable to successfully accomplish that this week. At no point during this experience (other than being greeted by the man at the front entrance) did I really come into any kind of personal or meaningful contact with another human being (oh, I forgot about the segment of the service where you shake hands with people around you and say “peace be with you”, but that hardly qualifies as personal or meaningful contact in my mind). So I realized, in the process of writing this article, that this week’s experience was exactly that…an experience. It was a religious ceremony that simply served as a spectacle for me. Since I am not Catholic, I was not allowed to partake in communion, the holy water that splashed on me really held no significance, nor did the baptism ceremony, which was obviously a baptism into the Catholic faith, not a baptism of death to self and life to Christ (these children were too young to make that decision with a complete understanding of its impact and requirements). For the ChurchSurfer project and for my personal spiritual walk, this week served as a reminder to me (by absence, rather than presence) of what church is all about. Along with all the traditions, rituals, symbols, songs, and atmospherics, I need real worship and fellowship with other believers. My soul craves the kind of let-it-all-hang-out worship where you lose yourself in that place where nothing else around you enters your conscious thought because you are only focused on the presence of the Lord and offering your praise to Him. But one thing I know is that people are all absolutely unique and different, and what quenches my spiritual thirst may be foreign and uncomfortable for many others. To God be the glory. He created us this way and therefore my only conclusion can be that He is satisfied with the result. But as I read His Word and see examples of worship, such as the description of the various creatures and angels who worship him in heaven in the book of Revelation, I grow in my desire to worship with more passion and intent. So although I know that I have brothers and sisters in Christ inside the Catholic church, I yearn for more of a full-contact Christian life that is less defined by rules and exclusivity and more open to freedom and acceptance. I can’t imagine Jesus ever refusing someone the opportunity to partake of His body and blood, can you? Everyone is welcome at His table, and if you have not experienced His total acceptance, which is the free gift of salvation and unimaginable love, I invite you to ask Him in to your life right now. Simply kneel down and verbalize your desire to live for Him and I promise you that your life will never be the same. Oh and by the way, Laura and I went home and had a communion of our own…
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