Celebrating daily Mass is a blessing because you can take more time to contemplate and ponder the mysteries before you.
On a large Sunday Mass I am too often concerned with all that is going on around me and making sure everything is going smoothly.
On Sunday night I had been reading Mircea Eliade’s history of religion. So many of the themes present within Christianity echoed through the myths and rituals of the ancient pagan world.
Here a god descended to take incarnate form. There a god battled with the powers of darkness. Here a god descended into the underworld to redeem the dead, there a god is brought back to life in the Springtime of the year. Here a king is sacrificed to atone for the sins of the people, there a god ascends back into heaven. Here an innocent warrior is sacrificed, there a scapegoated victim.
The atheist critics say, “You see? Christianity is merely paganism warmed up. All those ancient myths are simply swept up, re-hashed and mashed with added spices and forced into Christianity….kind of like making sausage.”
They would continue, “Just as we no longer believe in Ishtar and Moloch or Odin or Zeus we no longer need to believe in that other mythical hero Jesus Christ.”
I could see their point as I was standing at the altar. I thought to myself. “This really is quite remarkable. Here we are in the modern age and I am standing here as a priest at an altar making a sacrifice. No other religion in the world still does this. Okay, maybe some primitive tribes still offer sacrifices. Maybe creepy witches do or a few scattered obscure sects, but nothing mainstream, and not in the modern world. But here I am, a suburban man with a car that talks to my cell phone and I’m wearing robes, offering incense, lighting candles and making a sacrifice. This is either really very very cool or very very creepy.”
The cynic says it’s dumb.
The Protestant says its creepy.
How little they understand.
Of course this is just where the Catholic needs to stand the whole argument on its head.
Catholicism is not a re-hash of the old paganism. It is a correction and fulfillment of the old paganism.
Paganism in all its forms wherever it existed was remarkably similar. This is what one gets out of Eliade’s work–that time and again in culture after culture they came up with the same essential myths and models of reality. The gods in one way or another were interacting with humanity for redemption, release, prosperity and peace. Sacrifices were made. Battles were fought. Heroes emerged. Enemies were vanquished. Souls were saved. Humanity survived the crisis.
Only in Catholicism is this still going on.
The other religions of the West have been turned into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The sacrifices have ended. The altars were stripped. The incense was extinguished. The gods were packed away into the attic and the priests were pensioned off or re-trained as social workers.
But real Catholicism rejects Moral, Therapeutic Deism just as it rejects the old superstitious paganism.
The sacrifice we offer is not some vague bloody mess we hope will propitiate an angry god, but the re-presentation of the one, full, final sacrifice of Christ–not the Sun God but the Son of God.
Here the ancient paganism with its voodoo magic, its dark secrets and mystical mythologies is superseded not by a religion of nice people doing good works, but a religion with the sacrifice of praise at its heart. Here is sacrifice perpetuated and completed. Here the ancient world is overturned, but here also the modern world with its shallow philosophies of utilitarianism and idealistic ideologies is also overturned, for here is something better, stranger and more marvelous than both.
Here is a religion that brings heaven and earth together in a mystical union which both elevates the earth and humbles heaven.
The fact that this happens at the altar where I stand was suddenly overwhelmingly amazing.
It made me pause until the silence deepened and the people wondered if was lost.
They were right.
I was lost in wonder, love and praise.
And it was difficult for a moment to find my way back to that simple altar where it all takes place.