Rituals make us feel comfortable. They help us know our place in society and know what society expects of us. We know how to dress, what to say and what to do because every culture has its traditions to mark it’s moments of significance. What would Thanksgiving be without a turkey dinner or Christmas without a lighted tree and all that surrounds its preparation? I recall my first Thanksgiving away from home when sauerkraut was served with the traditional dinner instead of squash! As someone from pilgrim country, I was horrified at this breach of tradition.
Etiquette comes from a middle French word meaning “the ticket”. In order to attend a royal function you had to have a ticket. With it came certain expectations in conduct. Recall the bruha over the couple that crashed the Inaugural Ball in 2008!
Out of the middle ages came many customs or rules of etiquette for those attending court. In our very secular world we have no problem conforming to these rules of protocol for dignitaries of state. Heads of State have to be tutored in the proper customs before visiting a foreign country. Yet when we come before the Holy of Holies to encounter our own sacred “Supreme Head” we assume He doesn’t care how we approach Him. We fail to give Him the marks of respect that we would afford a mere mortal. Wars have been threatened because of disrespect to Heads of State!
Etiquette is a sign of respect not only toward others but it also demonstrates our own self- respect. As Catholics we believe that we are the Temples of the Holy Spirit. We are the dwelling place of God. We also know and believe that the Tabernacles of our Churches house the true, real and physical presence of God Himself. Thus we give respect to our to our Lord through our etiquette as well as to our fellow worshipers.
Over the last fifty years a great equalization process has emerged in society. Respect for elders and persons in authority has diminished. In our democracy we hold all members to be equal yet there is one domain where this does not hold true for persons of faith. God is the Supreme Being and we are His creation. We are not God and we are not equal to Him even though we are created for the purpose of reflecting his holiness. To Him we owe everything. There is nothing that we have or are that is not a gift from His generosity. Catholic Churches have a different culture than many other Christian denominations. Ours is worship first and community building second. Thus we reserve the socializing to before and after Mass and we do it in a gathering space rather than the sacred, holy area of the Church proper.
To better understand proper Church Etiquette let us compare our conduct in God’s Temple with what we observe in approaching a secular monarch. Once we enter the doors of our Church we have entered the Throne Room and our conduct should make a significant shift. Every act and word has a symbolic meaning to help us recall where we are and with Whom we have the “ticket” for a sacred audience.
In preparation, we attend to our grooming. We should wear our best clothes. Shorts, tee shirts, tank tops, bare shoulders, legs and feet are not appropriate in some formal societies or restaurants and certainly are too casual for The Throne Room of Christ the King. Clothes help us to feel like the occasion is special and different from our daily routines.
As we enter the Church we first become silent. We have come here to listen to the One who is greater than ourselves. He does not speak to us when we are talking to others because that would be rude. God is not rude. Then we signourselves with the water of baptism to ask for a cleansing our hearts in preparation for this audience. Chatter with friends and family is not appropriate here. With a smile and a nod we can acknowledge other’s presence then give attention to the One we came to visit.
As we approach our seat we gaze upon our Royal King and genuflect toward the Tabernacle (not the pew). As much as one is physically capable, the right knee should touch the floor or we should make a profound bow from the waist. Throughout the Mass our posture bespeaks our inner attitude. Slouching, leaning or draping ourselves about the pews demonstrates to everyone our boredom or even contempt and rudeness toward God and others. Gum chewing in formal settings is also rude and it does break our Eucharistic Fast.
Guests who approach a monarch are very respectful and feel honored to be permitted in the Royal Presence. They walked and hold themselves with great comportment. Shuffling, arm swinging, or twisting about to see who was watching them would be disrespectful to the Royal Majesty. Yet this is what we see in the communion lines every Sunday. It can look more like a line at McDonald’s than the approach to a Sacred Communion with the Lord of Creation. We are expected to approach communion with hands joined, then a bow or genuflect and when Christ is held up before our eyes and He is proclaimed to us, “The Body of Christ”, the proper response is a clear, audible Amen, not, thanks! Then the hands should be clearly extended and flat to receive Him on our “mini-throne”. Or we may receive Him directly on the tongue, knowing our unworthiness to touch Him. He should be consumed immediately.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that God doesn’t care about what we wear but He cares about what is in our hearts. That is true. But exterior actions witnesses to the interior attitude. We act as we think. If I were invited to a wedding, I would spend a bit of time and effort preparing just the right gift, choosing the right wardrobe and observing the rules of wedding etiquette. A lot of wedding customs may be silly but we like the rituals and we all know how we are supposed to look and behave. When we conform, we have the security of knowing that we will bring no embarrassment to ourselves or the bride and groom, we can relax and attend to what is important.
And he said to him, 'Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?' (Mt. 22:12) And the man was speechless. He was speechless because he had no excuse. Sometimes garments were actually even given out to the dinner guests. Now the wedding clothes may simply refer to appropriate garments but it is an insult to the host to come too casually attired. You were invited. You had advance notice so you could have prepared yourself with more care. Even if you are rushing to Mass from the ball field or the beach you can always throw a change of clothes in the car.
Mass is the Wedding Feast of Christ with His People, The Church. We come to be united with the Divine Bridegroom. The altar is where He lays down His life for us in a total surrender of unconditional love for each person individually. In receiving Communion the we two become one. Christ’s flesh is united to ours that we might become more like Him. His blood courses in our veins.
When we realize what the function the Mass is and how it is supposed to transforml us, it makes sense to conform to the sacred customs of this event.
* My soul should look its best because I have gone to confession recently.
* My person should look its best because I have taken the time to prepare the “gift of
myself” for my Lord.
* My behavior should be at its best to give respect to the Royal Bridegroom.
Doing this I know that I “fit in, belong and am secure” and then all my attention can be focused on Communion with Christ the King and not those around me. This communicating is called prayer. That is why we come to the foot of the altar to say to the bridegroom, “I only have eyes and ears for you.”
Learning these rituals and customs begins in the boot camp of childhood when parents, godparents, teachers and other church members teach by word and example. Bringing up children to be model Catholics is a community endeavor. Children watch everyone around them to see if they do what their parents say they should do: genuflect, bow, stand and sit reverently, sing, respond to the prayers etc. We come to Church fasting that we might more truly hunger for the Bread of Life. One hour without a snack is no hardship even for a child. We are all teachers. We have not come to be entertained but to proclaim our love, honor and worship of the Divine Monarch that is above all earthly monarchs.