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Worship in a Time of War

Mass in bombed out Muenster Cathedral at end of WWII

Public Domain

Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 07/21/15

Especially now, it is urgent that we live for and from a liturgy worthy of God

Few things are more distasteful to me than the prospect of watching well-fed, healthy, comfortable people who sleep well under the blanket of the rule of law, clapping and rocking while singing the hymn (ditty?), “He’s got the whole world in His hands.”  Worship is a bit too facile and a lot less urgent and compelling when it takes place in the comfortable arms of the world’s embrace.

Thus I find the photo above so irresistible.  It is a photo of a Solemn Mass offered in one of the great cathedrals of Europe, St. Paulus-Dom, in Munster, Germany, shortly after World War II.  The photo shows the devastation of the cathedral and the rubble of its surroundings.  Somehow (miraculously?) an altar and tabernacle survived.  Somehow (perhaps even more miraculously?) faithful laity and clergy desired to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  The ruined cathedral and the wreckage of the world around it could scarcely be less consonant with the sentiment, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.”  Surely, the smell of gunpowder and the stench of death were familiar to the laity and clergy at that Mass; likely those odors permeated the air around them before, during and after the Mass.  In the presence of such darkness and death, how could the inclination to worship survive?

The photo illustrates that worthy worship can endure if one understands worship in terms of obedience, defiance, prophecy and hope.  If we reclaim and reassert these motives for worship in our time, we are more likely to remain faithful during our present and coming trials.

How is worship a matter of obedience?  We are bound by the first three of the Ten Commandments to offer God the worship that is His due.  It is a privilege to offer God thanks and praise, and as we say at Mass, “it is right and just” that we do so.

How very different is the attitude towards worship that is found among those who think that the good of worship is something to be sold (“Let’s have a satisfaction survey about our worship so that we can be more relevant!”) or something to be obtained (“I want to get something out of going to church!”).  To the former, I offer the wise words of Jonathan R. Wilson’s “Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World”:

…the mission of the church must be disciplined by the gospel and firmly grounded in the conviction that "relevance" is an intrinsic characteristic of the gospel, not a demand of the culture. Otherwise, the quest for relevance becomes a quest for acceptance. As Julian Hartt reminds us, there is a great difference between the church asking the world, "Are you getting the message?" and asking the world, "Do you like the message?" or "Will you go on loving me even if you don’t like my message?”

To the latter (“I want to get something out of going to church!”), Wilson notes:  “As the Westminster Catechism states, ‘the chief end of [humanity] is to glorify God and enjoy [God] forever.’ When this telos is lost and (pseudo)worship ensues, then our practice of worship may appear healthy while actually being ordered by the wrong end. …the proper end of worship is to confront us with the vision of God and reorient our lives to this vision. If our worship is ordered by this end, then we will not merely feel better, we will be blessed, and our perception of the world, not just our perception of ourselves, will be changed. This vision and reorientation will change the way that we live in the world.”

In other words, even in the wreckage of a shattered cathedral, with ruin as far as the eye can see, it is right and just to offer worship, simply because God is God, and that reason alone is sufficient.

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