Sunday, July 26, 2015

Religious Comforts

Having grown up with Protestant relatives, I was never greatly troubled by the concept of communion services involving bread and grape juice.  It simply seemed to me (if my Protestant readers will forgive the childish pride) to illustrate one of the many minor ways in which Catholicism had taken the high road.  They drank Welches, while our priests confected the Sacrament with strong drink.  The fact that the priests were usually the only ones to partake of that Species, at least at the parishes my family tended to attend, was irrelevant to the larger point: Catholics were not afraid of wine.

Obligatory Chesterton picture.

There are, of course, solid reasons for this Catholic habit (proper matter being a necessity for any sacrament); but here I am interested in the unsolid reasons.  To be more precise, I am interested in what the choice of grape juice or wine, when it is a choice, suggests about the religion in question.  Certainly some Protestants adapted the drinking of non-alcoholic beverages during service for the sake of Temperance with a capital T.  Observing the damage that drink did to society, they chose to eradicate it not merely from their shops and their homes, but also, symbolically, from the small and not possibly inebriatory cup which they shared some few Sundays out of the year.  (Another source of childish joy: the Douay translation of Psalm 22: “my chalice that inebriateth me.”  Take that, Aquarii.)

But what began in many cases as a matter of principal has become today simply a tradition, and a comfortable one.  Grapefruit juice is sweeter than wine, especially our not very potable Communion wine; children making their first communions are less inclined to wrinkle up their noses at it—indeed, the whole family from mother down to Jimmy in diapers can partake.  Juice is simply a more welcoming drink.

I know wine makes you more welcoming, but that’s another story.

Juice, in a word, is comfortable; and comfort often seems to be the raison d’être of modern low church Protestantism, both mainstream and Evangelical alike.  The emphasis on the happiness religion can bring is not wholly bad: “His yoke is easy, and His burden light”; and Isaias (or at any rate, Charles Jennens’s Isaias) does say “Comfort ye, my people.”

At the same time, however, reducing the elements of a religious ceremony to the point where none of them gives us pause—where Jesus becomes the friend who teaches "how to praise my God and still play rock and roll"—can be deceptive.  One cannot imagine those Jews who still practice their religion making that mistake.  Much may be said of the blood sacrifices of the Old Testament, but few first time witnesses could have found them comfortable.  Awesome, perhaps, or awful (in the etymological senses); but not comfortable.  Nor should they have been.  After all, the liturgy takes us in one hour from earth to heaven, covering infinities of distance in mere minutes.  Why wouldn’t the trip shake you up like a journey through warp drive?

So it happens that even to this day, Catholic parishes that know what they are about are not terribly concerned with promoting the comfort of their parishioners.  The kneelers are rock hard; crucifixes hang in full view; pop and Broadway are eschewed in favor of more challenging things; and there is, needless to say, not a grape in sight, unless it be in the chubby hands of the writhing, bawling, teething one-year-old, whose seven older siblings, comporting themselves with the utmost decorum in their uncomfortable Sunday best, wonder when he will be old enough to stop embarrassing them.

The point of all this discomfort is not, of course, to make us uncomfortable—though as often as not that is the immediate effect.  The point of everything difficult about the liturgy is to take us somewhere.  It can feel alienating because it is in fact meant to alienate us: to make us other than what we are in our miserably mundane lives, and repatriate us towards a better place.  Then, and only then, can we be truly comforted.

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