As some of you know, I recently went to the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in the greater-metropolitan area of Winfield, Kansas. It was a great trip again, with wonderful fellowship, delicious food, good music, and mild weather.
As usual, when I attend this festival, I offer Mass for any Catholics in attendance at 4 p.m. on Saturday. This year we had about 150 attendees. As I was watching people enter the camp site for Mass, I noticed that people began filling in the space as far away from the altar as possible. It was the classic Catholic instinct to sit in the back of the Church. At first, when I saw this, I started thinking to myself, “Why do Catholics do that? Why can’t they just sit in front? Are they afraid to be seen by others? Are they afraid to be seen by the priest? etc. etc. etc.”
And then an answer came to my mind that I think was of the Spirit.... What if people sit in the back because they recognize the power of the sacrament and have a sense of unworthiness in response to its great power and beauty? Kind of like Ash Wednesday. So many people go to Ash Wednesday that you would think that it is a Holy Day of Obligation, but it is not. So why do so many go to receive ashes? I would say it is because it speaks to the heart of a person’s sense of unworthiness. The ashes then become a plea to God for mercy and a public statement of faith, “I am a sinner before God and men; and I beg God’s mercy upon my soul.”
So, perhaps Catholics have an instinctive humility regarding the Mass. And, to a degree, isn’t this fitting? After all, the Mass is not some empty ritual recalling some past dead event. Rather, it is a present celebration of the single sacrifice of Jesus Christ offered once and for all in which we are participating. At Mass we are participating in the one event that happened on Calvary. From this celebration, we then receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ himself. Like a person standing back from radioactive material, perhaps Catholics situate themselves at a distance because of an instinctive humility, “Who am I to be close to such a great mystery?” Yes. This is fitting... to a degree.
We must also remember that, though we are unworthy, God himself, in Jesus Christ, has entered human history, indeed, into our own lives ,and has made us worthy through His life, death, and resurrection. While we respect the mystery we celebrate, we must also respect God’s divine election as well: He Himself has come close; to us, therefore, let us not flinch away from him in disrespect of his love for us.
In the end, whether you sit up front or sit in back, let us remember these two things: First, the Divine mystery we celebrate is great in its magnificence, for which we are unworthy. But second, God’s love is overwhelming in its closeness to the human person. Let us not shrink away from so great a love.
Father Jarrod Lies, Pastor