‘That’s not what religion is about’ – ‘It’s about faith and not all this ceremony’ – ‘All you talk about is clothes and ritual’
These are all sayings of my (previously Methodist) grandpa who has returned to Church in my “high” Church parish and who, by his own frequent admission, struggles against all the fuss and ceremony of the Sunday Mass. This is a criticism any church-goer is used to hearing: ‘Jesus didn’t come to found a religion’. In a sense, I understand the sentiment behind these sayings – they reflect a real desire to grow in, and to draw others towards, a deep and personal intimacy with the living Christ and to avoid the vestiges of a stale, dead faith. However, this aside, I must confess to rather liking my religion.
I love walking into Church and gazing on crucifixes and crosses; seeing the dance of light in the stained glass; the statues of the Blessed Virgin; the flickering flames atop candles; the radiance of vestments which remind me that this isn’t just another meeting.
I also love what I get to do in Church: bowing and kneeling; genuflecting and singing; making the sign of the Cross and clasping my hands in prayer – I enjoy the choreography of public and private worship.
I like what I hear in the Eucharist: the comfort, challenge and promise of the Scriptures proclaimed aloud as the ‘Word of the Lord’; the calming, exacting, ancient sounding collects and prayers of the Church; the exultant, moving, beautiful words of the Eucharistic Prayer.
In essence, I love that the faith I have is not just an idea, a set of theories about the nature of reality, but is rather centred on an elaborate series of concrete rituals; actions that are entirely gratuitous, they have no purpose (in the sense of ‘utility’) but are designed purely to honour and worship the Almighty and to transform us who worship. I also love the rules for life which my religion provides – I need these rules. If I wanted to play football, I’d have to learn the rules. It’s just the same with the Christian life – if I want to live the Christian life, and not just a pattern of life I’m making up as I go along, then there are certain forms/rules which give that life shape and make it recognisably Christian. Some rules are negative (don’t lie, don’t lust, don’t covet), and others are positive (pray the prayers that Jesus and the Church teach us, fast, give alms, worship). Religion gives shape and meaning to my life; it provides form to the formless feelings of faith and anchors it in a set of commitments that have been shown – over two thousand years – to reliably provide a concrete context for my relationship with the living God.
This is why I don’t really understand the statement that Jesus didn’t come to found a religion – which leads to the appeal for us to leave all this ‘religion’ behind. The most common example of this is a call to leave our church buildings behind and go and meet people in the coffee shops and pubs etc. As I said before, I understand the desire for the Church to rediscover its place in Welsh culture: we can’t now, for example, assume our colleagues and neighbours are Christian and will just turn up to Church because of societal expectation. In order to fulfil our Lord’s commission, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’, we need to be out in the communities and encourage people to join us.
However, the final result of this commission is precisely to bring people into ‘religion’ – a regularised form of life that includes at its heart:
- Consistent times of daily prayer;
- Commitment to charitable giving and action;
- Weekly attendance (at the very least) at public worship.
This public worship requires a community of the faithful being gathered together in one place and, since Christianity values Beauty, this would hopefully be a place that is radiant with beauty and looks ‘otherworldly’ enough to remind people that the reality of the universe is not reducible to the blandness of the supermarket or office, where we send the other six days; a space that lifts us from the hospital ward where the worshipper received their most recent cancer treatment or have just said goodbye to an elderly relative. Of course, a beautiful building is not the priority – but the celebration of the Eucharist in a way that inspires ‘reverence and awe’ (Hebrews 12) is truly central to the Christian life.
Even if you don’t have a beautiful building or your Church’s liturgy seems far from awesome, the other anchors of the religious life are readily accessible. We need to be people who enjoy teaching others to pray the Daily Office, or say the rosary – people who get excited about the Church’s feasts and celebrate with joy the wonderful hotchpotch of people who make up the calendar of Saints. We need priests who throw holy water at everything and anyone as often as they can – on children’s backpacks for the first day of school, on the parishioners’ new homes, on the parishioners themselves!
The Church seems keen to bang on the ‘Jesus doesn’t like religion’ drum and I worry that we are sawing off the branch on which we stand. Religion, for Christians, just means the set of beliefs and practices that provide the context for our life and encounter with God. Of course these beliefs and practices can be stale, mechanical and fruitless – but they don’t need to be! Jesus fiercely criticised those religious leaders who ‘outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness’ (Matt. 23:27). He rebuked their hypocrisy in ‘tithing mint and dill and cumin’ which ‘neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith.’ But he didn’t tell them to forget the tithing and the beauty and just focus on justice. Instead, he says, ‘these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others’ (23.23). Jesus was opposed to the religious leaders of his day not because religion is a bad thing, but because their use of it was corrupt. They didn’t allow the ways of God to penetrate their hearts and transform them.
By our own strength alone, we are no doubt just as bad as the Pharisees – hypocrites and purveyors of religious platitudes. But – and it’s a big but – this is the difference the living Christ has made by his death and resurrection. ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds’ (Heb. 10). Jesus himself is our religion because he has made himself a ‘full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world,’ and because, by this sacrifice, he has inscribed his own self-offering, his own perfect piety, his own religion, on our hearts. The best way to know him, therefore, is to follow his command and ‘do this in remembrance of me’.