Thursday, December 29
By which I mean, "What makes things POD cool?" Why is it so easy to like cassocks, incense, side altars, etc.? More to the point, how to these matter to the center of our religion and of our lives, Christ: are they relevant, or, like Calvin critiqued, are they a distraction?
Because the concept of "POD" is so instinctual, I'm not going to attempt a systematic answer. But please accept more of a reflection.
A while ago, I wrote: "Catholics have an inherant love for all customs obscure and funny-looking." And actually, more thought went into that than may have appeared.
Christianity claims to be one body, set apart and sanctified by the work and teaching of Christ, given to all men of all times and places, descendant from the Apostles and following their example in continuing to reach out to the world. To wit: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
"POD" things, at least the ones which are awesome because they are "obscure" and "funny-looking," express particularly, I think, the holiness and catholicity of the Church, and even hint at its apostolicity.
Our obscure traditions are obscured, usually, by the passage of time and the remoteness of the culture(s) from which they originated. Anyone who has studied the history of the old Mass knows that it is a jumble of symbols dating from many different times and many different places; as is, for that matter, clerical vestry. This very obscureness necesarily shows forth the catholicity of the Church: seeing a medieval custom continued today demands the recognition that the Church was present in the Middle Ages and, in continuity, is present today. Seeing a Gaulic or Greek or Italian symbol demands the recongition that the Church was present in that place, and now, across cultures and continents, is present here. The living obscurities of the Church witness to her character as universal, universal to all people and through all time.
Our customs hint at the Apostolic because it is that vital connection to the Apostles from which the entire edifice of the Church's credibility is drawn: we know what we know, we preach what we preach, and we do what we do because it was taught us by the Apostles, and kept by us in unbroken observance. How can one really believe the historical message of a historical figure can be preserved any other way? And by testifying to her presence in all ensuing ages, our obscure customs remind us of that link to the Apostles.
The funny-lookingness of our customs is important in expressing the mark of a Church set apart. The Church is not your life as usual; the Church cannot be your life as usual, because Christ came specifically to radically destroy your life as usual. We do not fit easily into ordinary catagories, and we cannot blend in with the surrounding landscape. In fact, the more we do "blend in," the less relevant the Church becomes: when the more the Church looks like the rest of society, when banality reigns within her, she shares that contempt which fallen society has for itself. Of course: the way in which we live our graced lives is the central, the core, and the salvific expression of our radical otherness, our set-apart-ness, that is to say, our holiness--for holiness is simply being set apart for God alone. But that reality is also expressed materially: we don't dress like you. We don't sing like you. We don't build like you. The Church is different, we refuse to blend into the world, and therefore we demand your attention--we demand that you consider the call of Christ to be set apart from the ordinary, fallen world in holiness of life.
It is easy to dismiss ceremony and custom as "superfluous," "frivolous," or unrelated to the Word born in a manger long ago. Then again, it is usually easier to be Cavlinist, removing things from tension (like grace-freewill or ceremony-authenticity or symbol-Christ) and opting for one extreme or the other. Free will can be tricky, but the Catholic does not, for that reason, throw it out, as Calvin acknowledges he does for the very reason of its trickiness. Talk of ceremony or symbol can become superficial, but the Catholic does not therefore dismiss it superficial: the Catholic insists on seeing its proper (not its extreme) role.
Quite the contrary, and exactly because of the incarnational principle which is the center of gravity in Christianity, these spiritual realities of catholicity and holiness demand physical manifestation. This manifestation is true, for truth is simply an expression which corresponds to reality. This manifestation is charitable, because it is a clear and easy (if simplistic) manner of evangelization: our weirdness compells the outsider to look for explanation, to be drawn in. And this manifestation, because it corresponds to the incarnational principle, is part and parcel with the Catholic vision and the Catholic instinct.
It's hardly peripheral.