There continue to be no shortage of ideas about how to increase Mass attendance that cross my desk on an almost daily basis. As you might imagine, priests get email alerts all the time advertising “amazing” new programs for parishes, new books on how to attract the whole world to church, as well as new programs to increase participation, etc. In addition to the steady email stream, priests hear ideas from many other sources as well about what we need to do differently or change in the liturgy to grow our crowds at Mass.
A lot of the ideas are very interesting. Many of them, it seems to me, are mainly about copying what the Evangelical churches do in their heavily entertainment-based services. Certainly there is merit to some of those concepts, but they also come with risks that are rarely considered at first glance.
Today’s Solemn Feast of the Epiphany offers its own timeless perspective on this ongoing conversation in the Church today about what worship should look like. Saint Matthew describes it in his Gospel as the act of “doing homage.”
The Magi give as their reason for traveling in search of the newborn King of the Jews the desire to do Him homage and to worship. They are drawn to Bethlehem for this purpose.
It is important to remember that they did so in an era when most worship consisted of pagan rituals of nature deities, including star-worship, and that included very tangible uses of fabricated images, sacred poles, statues of gods, and rituals that centered on eating, drinking, dancing, uses of narcotics, ecstatic emotional escape, wild costumes, animal figures, live animals, and unbridled sexual orgies. Yes, all of that was “worship” in the ancient world, and historical records show that it was all VERY exciting. For comparison, just think of the contemporary allure of NFL Football games on Sunday which contain much of the above.
How interesting, therefore, that the Magi were drawn to leave all of that behind upon their encounter with what would have been a highly unusual sight for that time period: a child king in the most impoverished of surroundings, completely lacking in any fanfare or ceremony.
They did Him homage because they knew He was, and is, truth itself. And, because they knew that He intentionally set aside all the trappings of earthly entertaining grandeur to inaugurate a whole new way of being, of living, and of offering worship.
The new way of worship would not be smitten with the glitzy allure of the passing world but would instead rest on the subtleties of shedding power and attention, as opposed to amassing those deadly things. The Magi’s worship of someone, and something, so, so different than the customs around them was highly unusual and countercultural.
The homage of the Magi that we recall today tells us that the answer to right worship is not located in superficial attractions and clever new ideas. It is found only in correctly understanding what the heart of Catholic worship is: total homage to our God who operates in subtleties and wants us to love Him precisely because He is plain and simple. He does not appear grand on our altars deliberately, just as was the case in Bethlehem.
If we knew just who was on the altar in every Catholic Church at Mass, no one would ever think of praying elsewhere. As with the Magi, that is a decision of faith, and it is one that involves a rejection rather than an embrace of what is trendy and popular. Only if we hold to those principles that are timeless and of the essence of the faith will we maintain right, even if not always crowded, worship.