Over at the study group (www.ofgraceandfaith.blogspot.com) two weeks ago we spent a long time discussing passage CCC 1387 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church : ‘To prepare for worthy reception of this sacrament (ie the Eucharist), the faithful should observe the fast required in their Church. Bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest.’ Every so often the comment would be made – in reference to less than perfect behaviour – ‘But surely God would understand’, and I’m not totally sure that this is the case.
In times past people would dress up to go to Mass, and especially when preparing for Sunday Mass. Afterwards you would change into ordinary clothes, play clothes or work gear. They were full of the awareness that they were going to worship God and that God, being God, deserved the very best they had to offer. They went to Church primarily to be with God, and used the moments before and after Mass to talk to Him in their hearts. In plenty of our churches these days it seems that going to Mass is primarily a social occasion, to catch up with friends and obtain the latest news, and that worshipping God is somewhere down the list of motivations.
‘Well, at least they are at Mass’. Yes, that is a minimum start. But wouldn’t we be horrified by someone who came to interview an important celebrity without doing background research, preparing questions to ask, and dressing in a professional manner?
Why are we so reluctant to set standards of dress when attending the Eucharist? To get into an RSL club there are minimum dress regulations (wear something with a collar, no shorts or thongs), and people abide by them. If you came to a performance of Opera talking loudly, chewing gum and playing a noisy game on your smart phone, the usher would soon escort you elsewhere. We dress up to go and see a performance of Shakespeare. So how is it that ‘anything goes’ is good enough for God, and ’surely He’ll understand that I didn’t bother to look my best for Him because ……. I was running late / remembered to go at the last moment / it’s just one of many things I’ve got to do today’.
Would God understand? When Jesus saw the Temple turned more into a marketplace than a place for worship, He was angry and drove out the money changers and their wares. He was full of zeal for God’s house and for God’s glory. So much did He want His heavenly Father honoured that He gave us ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’ in the Our Father. Honouring God and giving Him our best was a top priority for Jesus, so how is it that we don’t follow Him in this?
Would Jesus understand the ‘Come as you are’ mentality? Given the evidence above, I don’t think so. The popular song of that title was primarily about not delaying our return to God by repentance. It definitely wasn’t about how to dress when going to Mass, and yet those thoughts have seeped in to the collective psyche.
Currently we are collectively shaking our heads over a faith-filled mother who is permitting her teenage daughter to come to Mass in short-shorts and thongs. For all we know there may have been major arguments at home, and the ‘at least she’s here’ argument won the day. These are the teachable-moments that God gives us to remind our children and others that He is both worthy and deserving of our very best, and that offering Him our dregs is insulting to His majesty and glory.
One of the prayers of St Thomas Aquinas captures the attitude of heart that should inform our dress, demeanor and gestures in God’s presence : ’I give You thanks, Lord, Holy Father, everlasting God. In Your great Mercy, and not because of my own merits, you have fed me, a sinner and Your unworthy servant, with the precious Body and Blood of Your Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.’
While we are unlikely to have much success persuading people with words to prepare for Holy Mass more consciously, leading by example is likely to be far more effective. It could be as simple as making a commitment to wear closed-in shoes each time you go to Mass. It could be as simple as putting on a collar and tie for gents and a skirt of ample length for the ladies together with necklines which show no cleavage. It could be as simple as setting aside a good outfit or two for ‘Sunday best’ and choosing when you have new clothes to wear them for the first time when going to Mass. It could be as simple as always putting on clean, fresh clothes before going to Church. It could be as simple as taking off all distracting ear-rings, bangles and jewellery and leaving all mobile phones in the car. When there is a choice between something flamboyant and something less flamboyant to wear, choose the one which will distract fellow worshippers the least. Such simple commitments would powerfully prepare our own hearts for the Eucharist and help us to value it more highly. Then should someone comment or ask why you are making an effort to be presentable at Mass, have your answer ready and give that answer with both truth and love.
In essence it is all about removing ‘practical atheism’ – all of those habitual actions in our lives which fail to mirror the faith we profess. eg If we believe that God is truly present in the consecrated hosts within the tabernacle, then we will behave reverently and prayerfully in Church, relishing that presence, and not exiting Mass as fast after Holy Communion as we can.
Particularly let us take the Solemnity of Christmas as our starting point for showing the good God greater honour in the way we dress and behave at Mass.
Divine Infant Jesus, protect and bless us, and guide us into true worship of the Heavenly Father. Amen.