Tag Archives: physicality of worship

Star Wars, Pageantry, and the Mass

In the summer of 1977 I was a boy of eleven looking for things to do with my friends. So, when a sci-fi samurai western fantasy movie, panned by critics and expected to fail big, came to an old single-screen theater without any air conditioning in my hometown, I and a friend just had to check it out. I loved the movie so much I saw it six times that week, and twelve times that year. Of course the movie was Star Wars.

To say the film was immensely popular is an understatement. Why it was such a hit and spawned perhaps the greatest movie franchise in history seems obvious now. The film had great characters, sets, costumes, action sequences, soundtrack, and it followed the classic hero’s journey, which meant the story had deep and broad timeless appeal. But I would also argue that its pageantry played a big role in the film’s success. In particular, the final scene before the credits, in which the principal characters get their recognition and rewards, is a scene of formal, royal, and solemn pageantry. It ties up the story in a perfect bow.

In case you need to be reminded:

I want to posit the need for this scene to exist in order for Star Wars to have succeeded. You see, human beings are designed in such a manner that proper pageantry feeds our souls, clarifies the world, and focuses our passions towards nobility — and our souls are designed to love nobility. Think of an Olympic Games medal ceremony. Is it needed? Absolutely. Does it determine who won? No. But it is the most proper action for the sport at that moment, in that setting — it is about the glory of sport. In Star Wars this final ceremony casts the rest of the story in the right light. Theses characters are not merely winners, they are glorious. And the audience is ennobled as they carry some of that nobility, now in their hearts, beyond the closing credits and into their daily lives. In short, that final scene is what the movie is all about.

I want to argue that something like that final scene in Star Wars, something like that kind of pageantry, is both proper and necessary to the Mass.

A Mass can be very simple and humble. Even the hood of a jeep on the battlefield can serve as a makeshift altar.

Robert Capa 937

Using the hood of a jeep as an altar, a Roman Catholic chaplain saying mass at the inauguration of an American cemetery, Omaha Beach, Normandy. Photo by Robert Capa, 1944.

A Mass can also have all the royal pageantry of a coronation. Think of the coronation of a Medieval king. There is pageantry, awe, solemnity, beauty, and reverence. There is also appropriate action: kneeling, proclamations, prayers, and a crowning — which requires the physical object of a crown.


The coronation of Charlemagne, Christmas day, 800 A.D. Painting by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861

And with a coronation there is also a change in ontology. In others words, a man actually becomes a king. The pageantry is not merely symbolic. In some very real way a man has actually changed — a man made king, king made flesh. This sort of understanding is something that was lost on the way to modernity. This is something we moderns do not understand well in an overt sense.

But we still act sometimes as though it is, in fact, true. In other words we believe it, though we might want to admit it for what it is. Our actions give us away. Watching the Olympics I am struck by how many times it’s mentioned that once an athlete has become a medal winner they will always be one, and that cannot be take away from them. They have changed from a non-Olympic medalist to an Olympic medalist. They are set apart. They are now an Olympian. They walk the earth as a different creature.


1980 Winter Olympics Hockey Medal Ceremony

There is another activity we do that speaks volumes to this reality, and that is with our liturgical action in the Mass. Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We believe in transubstantiation, that the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Knowing what we know, the Mass becomes a pageant of Christ the King. We celebrate His death and resurrection with kneeling, proclamations, prayers, and a sacrifice. It has all the solemnity and reverence of temple worship, of a wedding, and of a coronation.


A Traditional Latin Mass properly celebrated

Catholics are always faced with the questions of 1) do you truly believe in the Real Presence and, if so, 2) how should behave when in the presence of your king and savior and your God? Treating the Mass for what it is obligates Catholics to certain behaviors. We may not want to be overly prescriptive and proscriptive, but it’s fair to say that we all can figure out basic ideas of of action, dress, and other factors based on our culture, history, and humanness.

God does not need our worship. We don’t go to Mass because God needs us to go. Rather, God gave us the Mass so that we might draw closer to Him, and that we might be fortified against the pressures of the world. The Mass is a gift, and worship is like a healthy diet and exercise. The closer our worship is to what is most proper, the better it is for us.

A truly solemn Novus Ordo Mass can provide this fairly well, but nothing compares to the beautiful and appropriate action of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, a.k.a. the Traditional Latin Mass. Here is an example* from a parish in Paris:

Notice how this Mass has a kind of similarity to the pageantry of the Star Wars scene above, especially once the organ begins (okay, I know it’s no John Williams score) and the procession enters the nave and sanctuary. People only do these kinds of things in the presence of royalty. A Mass like this is one of the most human activities any of us can experience. It is strangely foreign to our daily experience, but then again it is Heaven on Earth, and thus not quotidien. Still, we are made for this. God created us to need this kind of liturgy (the work of the people) and to be fed by such appropriate pageantry.

To not see this truth is to be broken in some substantial way. Modernity breaks people. The Devil breaks people. Sin does too, but modernity, as a tool of the Devil, has a special desire to rid humanity of right praise towards God. Evangelical Protestant attempts at worship recognize the need at some level, but fail because of some fundamental theological flaws, namely the disbelief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist. This disbelief has many consequences, including the development of a non-sacramental view of creation and our faith, and this leads to a false anthropology to such a degree that true Christian pageantry is lost and even disdained. Without the Real Presence there is no King in the building and thus no worship except, perhaps, our own vanity. Poor theology breaks people too.

*This example is of a SSPX Mass. I’m not including it to promote the SSPX, but they do know how to celebrate a Traditional Latin Mass, and I truly love the inclusion of the very human life that infuses the Mass — people arriving, families, sounds and textures, etc.

Leave a comment

Filed under Liturgy, Sacraments

The Physicality of Faith

“Moses, Moses!”
“Here am I.”
“Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
(Exodus, chapter 3)


Recently I have been praying in the mornings. I created for myself a place to pray. I face east, light a candle or two, and kneel. I pray novenas and rosaries, move the beads in my fingers one by one, cross myself, bow my head. It’s not much, but praying this way a fairly new thing for me. I feel drawn to a more physical expression of prayer.

What is it about kneeling? Holding beads? Candles? What is it about these physical things? Some might say they are trappings, or hindrances, or worse.

Moses was asked to take off is shoes. Why? Did God need this? I doubt it. Did Moses? I’m sure he did.

During the Penitential Act of the Mass we strike our breast three times while saying this: “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

We speak and we strike. It’s deep truth, it’s of the heart, it’s also physical. We confess physically, we worship physically. We bow. We kneel.

O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
(Psalm 95:6)

I am curious about the physicality of worship; the actual, physical nature of worship. Perhaps more than curious, because the emphasis on the physicality of faith is one of the characteristics that drew me towards the Catholic Church and away from my Protestant roots. I found a richness in Catholicism and a kind of poverty in evangelical Protestantism. I’m sure some would disagree with me.

I also find those verses in Holy Scripture that point towards, or mention, physical acts of worship more than merely interesting. We are physical beings. Christ is physical (fully man). He drank, he ate, he knelt in prayer, he climbed up the mountain, walked into the garden and out to the wilderness. He stood, strolled, sat, slept. He broke bread. He went to the temple. He was whipped, beaten, crucified. He is God become man — the “physical act” par excellence. He worshiped with his body. Our bodies are part of our worship.


It is in the physical world that the intangible meets us. A kiss seals a courtship. The sexual act seals a marriage A ring betokens the marriage. A diploma crowns the years of schooling. A doctoral robe bespeaks intellectual achievement. A uniform and stripes announce a recruit’s training. A crown girds the brow that rules England. This symbolism bespeaks the sort of creature we are. To excise all of this from piety and worship is to suggest that the gospel beckons us aways from our humanity into a disembodied realm. It is to turn the Incarnation into a mere doctrine. (Thomas Howard, Evangelical is Not Enough)

Perhaps four bare walls and a pulpit is the symbol of a disembodied, even gnostic, faith. Perhaps the non-biblical, historically recent “doctrine” of the rapture speaks of that same desire to be free of the physical. Perhaps denying the Real Presence is just an example of fear — fear of our humanness, of our bodies, that God is actually one of us.

I can’t say. I wonder.

But I know the physicality of worship is everywhere in scripture, even in moments we might overlook.

And when our days there were ended,
we departed and went on our journey;
and they all, with wives and children,
brought us on our way till we were outside the city;
and kneeling down on the beach we prayed and bade one another farewell.
(Acts 21:5)

Kneeling on the beach. I would love to have a time machine. What is it about kneeling? Why not stand in a circle and hold hands? Or just stand around smiling with “Jesus in their hearts” or some such thing? No, they knelt — with Jesus in their hearts I’m sure, with love for each other, with the Spirit at work amongst them I’m sure, but they also knelt.

Is there a law at play here? I think so. Our human nature seems created for worship, and to do so with common, predictable, even specific kinds of actions. Why wouldn’t there be some similarity across humanity, across space and time? Scripture tells us this is true. Our nature, including heart, mind, and body, seem to cry out for a totality of worship — a combination of heart, mind, and body together in action.

We know that some situations just call for physical action, whether worship or supplication or awe…

Then Abram fell on his face…
(Genesis 17:3)

Then she fell on her face…
(Ruth 2:10)

And Jo′ab fell on his face…
(2 Samuel 14:22)

…and they fell upon their faces…
(Tobit 12:16)

…he fell on his face…
(Luke 5:12)

…falling on his face…
(1 Corinthians 14:25)

Across the ages, welling up from within their humanness, individuals act in similar ways. There is a physical connection, built into the human body, connected to mind and heart, to situations and contexts that call forth acts of worship, deference, and awe. Is this not a law of nature, of creation itself?

Does a law mean there is a right way and wrong way to worship? I think so — at least some ways seem better than others (I’m no expert).

Does a law mean one is shackled, suppressed, controlled? No. A law is the path to freedom — like the athlete at play, or the rules of the road making driving safely possible, or a structure of government laying the foundation for civil society. You don’t have to kneel, bow your head, and certainly not light a candle or face east. But if you do, you just might be doing something good for your soul — something fitted to your very being itself. It’s your choice. It’s a mystery.

Do we “make up” the law? No. We discover it, like a miner discovering the vein of gold, or an explorer finding new lands, or a scientist understanding a fundamental rule of nature. The law is like a gift — something good and precious, and for our benefit.


Do we need to discover this law anew every day? No. We can listen and observe those who have come before us and have already discovered the law. But we can experience it fresh every day, for no day is the same, and life keeps moving.

We can look to the past.

And all the men and women of Israel,
and their children, living at Jerusalem,
prostrated themselves before the temple
and put ashes on their heads
and spread out their sackcloth before the Lord.
(Judith 4:11)

Why does God care that we act out our hearts and minds? Why prostrate? Why ashes? Why sackcloth? Today this is a curiosity, mere archaeology — see how strange they used to behave, clearly the actions of a simplistic people, right? Incomprehensible. Inconceivable. Perhaps we have become blind and incoherent in our sophistication. Perhaps we are the simplistic ones. We lost something precious, have we not?

Okay, ashes and sackcloth may be too strange for us, but how about some appropriate form of penance? Or some act of sacrifice? It might be good for us. How about kneeling in prayer?

We don’t act out our faith for God. I don’t think He needs any of that. But we need it, because God made us this way. He created our nature, gave us the gift of worship, bid us to worship rightly because in that we find life. It is for us, not for Him. Kneel because it is good for you. Face east because you know this is a tradition of the Church; facing towards the rising of the sun, pointing towards the new day and the harkening to the beauty of the risen Christ. Can you face in another direction? Sure. Which way is better? Discover the answer in your meditations.

Moses took off his shoes. He was standing on holy ground. Where is our holy ground?

And he took a cup,
and when he had given thanks
he gave it to them,
and they all drank of it.
(Mark 14:23)

There is no secular world, not ultimately. There, truly, is only the sacred. What we call secular is merely that which we grab for ourselves and call ours. But it is not ours. All belongs to God. Every one and every place is holy, sacred, belonging to God, made for His purpose. Sin corrupts much of this gift. We can fashion ugliness, do terrible things, turn from God in many ways, but God can make all things new and good, even our darkest actions, even our hardest hearts. All things are God’s, true, but there are some things which are called out, for our sake, to be seen clearly as holy — places and times that require worshipful action. These are great gifts of “holy ground” for us. The greatest is the Holy Eucharist — really, truly, and substantially Christ present with us.

The cup of blessing which we bless,
is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread which we break,
is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
(1 Corinthians 10:16)

We kneel, genuflect, bow, pray. We sing, chant, speak. We go, enter, stand, sit, be. We eat. We drink.

We worship.

Our bodies are made for worship.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christian Life, Curious, Liturgy, Prayer, Religion, Tradition