Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Familiarity breeds Contempt

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

“Familiarity breeds contempt.” It is a well-known maxim that goes all the way back to Publius the Syrian, who lived in 2 BC. The entire caption reads, “Familiarity breeds contempt … while rarity wins admiration.” Not to be upstaged, the ever witty Mark Twain once wrote, “familiarity breeds contempt … and children.”  

In the gospel we are told that our Lord’s reputation for attracting large crowds, His dynamic preaching, His astounding miracles had little effect on His own townspeople – they were not impressed. Rather, they began to mumble about the improbability of this since He was just an ordinary home boy, and He was certainly no better than anyone else in town. “This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too are they not here with us?” This led them to be contemptuous of His claims. To them, the Lord was a little more than an upstart. They had expected at least a rabbi, professionally trained for years in Scripture, to preach.  They hardly expected a sermon from a mere carpenter, who could have given them a lesson in woodwork, but certainly, not one qualified to speak to them about loftier subjects. So they closed their hearts to His message and to the possibility that God was indeed working in and through Him.  Yes, Jesus is truly and fully man. But He is also fully God. The Incarnation does not efface or render useless or outmoded the notion of the sacred.  On the contrary, the Incarnation makes the mundane sacred, holy and divine.

Such evidence of contemptuous familiarity is not just a thing of the past. It can also be found in this day and age.  Perhaps, we are witnessing a similar contempt of our Lord, in the lost of the sense of the sacred, especially in the liturgy. The cloud of incense is no longer an offering of worship to God but a cause of asphyxiation. Preaching becomes a chore when the Word of God becomes over familiar. The words of consecration become droning and uncomfortably lengthy. Hymns, sacred vessels, the bread and wine, vestments, every corner of the sanctuary, every word, every gesture of the divine liturgy becomes familiar, and a commonplace. Instead of mystery we see only cobwebs. Instead of order and beauty in the serving, we see only faults.  Indeed, nothing is sacred anymore in today’s modern climate. Eventually when the sense of the sacred is lost, we are left with a barren liturgy and a symbol-less Catholicism.

In the last few decades, we have witnessed a widespread decline in the “sense of the sacred” in many areas of culture and society, and even within the Church. There are many different causes for this loss. One of the main reasons is of course the growing contemptuous familiarity we have with the sacred.  This growing culture of contempt ranges from the subtle to the flagrant. There is nothing that cannot be turned into a parody, a point of mockery: the puns and jokes derived from scripture, the comical presentation of clerics and nuns or the mockery of piety and religious devotion, with a suggestion that these are symptoms of mental illness.

More flagrant is the manner in which our celebration of the sacred Liturgy has been transformed into something entertaining, marked by a greater casualness and carelessness that is diametrically opposed to the spirit of Liturgy. In spite of the insistence that there should be a proper decorum for church attire,  very few parishes have made some effort to move away from the banal music, instead “hymns” are chosen to placate the secular taste of various sectors of the parish. It’s no wonder the call to “dress properly” generally falls on deaf ears. If one can’t tell the difference between the music you hear at a party with that sung in church, can you blame anyone for not being able to make the distinction when it comes to dressing?

I believe that we have to assume the blame for this culture of contempt and for the loss of the sense of the sacred. We have spent so much time and effort trying to make the Church appealing to our people by making it feel like home, creating space where people feel welcomed and comfortable. This is a grave mistake. Just like the role of a prophet, the liturgy is not designed to make us “feel at home,” at least not in the sense that we feel comfortable behaving the way we do at home while at Church, that is, slippers off, pants down etc. The liturgy is meant to wake us up from our complacent stupour and shake us out of the lull of familiarity. It will naturally feel uncomfortable as the liturgy cuts us off from the intoxicating odour of the world.

But stepping into Church should open up our sense to a new experience, it should expand our vision beyond this world. We should be made to exhale with wonder as we step out from one world and enter another the moment we pass through those doors. It should bring us to quiet attention. It should bring us to our knees. Sacred music, instead of entertaining us, should lift our gaze to the heavens wondering where it could possibly be coming from. Shining threads woven into the priest's vestments should give us a glimpse of the magnificent beauty of the celestial court. Rays sifting through stained glass in varied hues illuminate the story of our faith. Bells that ring out and call us to be mindful that something sacred is happening here. Yes, churches are not meant to make us feel at home, at least not our homes here. Our Churches are meant to elevate our senses beyond this world, and give us eyes to see and ears to hear the things of eternal significance. Stepping into Church should inspire a sense of our heavenly home, not this earthly one.  Pope Francis reminds us that “the liturgy is to really enter into the mystery of God, to allow ourselves to be brought to the mystery and to be in the mystery.”

The importance of having a sense of the sacred is simply this—if one does not appreciate holy things, one will eventually lose everything. Without reverence, the person will grow increasingly casual in attitude and lax in conduct. His feeling of accountability to God will diminish and then be entirely forgotten. Where God and His law are mocked and despised, it is only natural that morality too will be expelled from the public sphere. Where God is not loved and adored, there can be no surprise that nothing else is sacred. When God is blasphemed, as He is today, it should not be shocking that people mistreat others. Nothing will be safe. Nothing will be stable. Nothing will be sacred anymore.

There is a Latin maxim that addresses the centrality of worship in the life, identity and mission of the Church; “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi”. The phrase in Latin literally means the law of prayer ("the way we worship") shapes the law of belief ("what we believe") which ultimately influences the way (law) we live. How we worship not only reveals and guards what we believe but guides us in how we live our Christian faith and fulfill our Christian mission in the world. There is a reciprocity between worship and life. Worship is the heart of the Christian vocation.

This Sunday, as you sit in your familiar pew, singing songs and confessing creeds and praying prayers that are probably all very familiar to you, don’t rush.  Ease from running to jogging, to walking, to kneeling and then, soak in the loveliness of the words that fall from your lips.  And, instead of contempt, familiarity with the sacred should breed something quite different, something quite beautiful, a comprehension of a divine love for you that knows no bounds. 

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