15 July 2018
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Catholic worship is known for its “smells and bells.” We surround ourselves here with all sorts of things that affect our senses.
We see the beautiful stained glass windows, with a rainbow of colors, scenes and images that remind us of the communion of saints, expertly handcrafted. We dip our fingers in the holy water as a reminder of our baptism. It’s cool and wet. We step into the place and smell incense or, more often, we smell the scent of many decades’ worth of burning candles. It smells like prayer.
We hear the bells in the tower, bells during the Mass; we hear the music; we hear the human voice speaking words of Scripture and prayer. Our taste buds even get a chance at communion time, when we eat and drink. We sit and stand, we kneel, we bow our heads, we process in and out. We make the Sign of the Cross over ourselves.
Catholic worship is a very bodily thing; it affects all our senses. Even in the simplest, most austere churches there are a lot of “smells and bells” in how we worship God. And that’s very fine; after all, God created the world and everything in it, and he reveals himself to us through it all. So the “smells and bells” are okay. They help us to lift our minds and hearts to God—at least, they’re supposed to.
We all know the story of the golden calf—how Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, but while he was gone, the people made a golden calf and worshiped it as their god. Well, the smells and bells of our worship can inadvertently become a golden calf. But, you know, that doesn’t happen because we don’t believe in God. The Hebrews didn’t make a golden calf because they stopped believing in God. They did it because the calf (or the bull) was associated with God—similar to how, for us, holy water, holy oil, bread and wine, incense, music, and so on are all associated with God.
It’s easy to experience the physical, tangible reminders of God’s presence while, at the same time, to miss the experience of worshiping God himself.
And this is where the Prophet Amos comes in, who we hear from today. He lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem is. But he was sent by God to go to the northern kingdom of Israel. Now, in the northern kingdom, King Jeroboam had set up two temples, one in a city called Bethel, and the other in a city called Dan. And King Jeroboam put up a golden calf in each temple.
And the problem wasn’t so much that there were golden calves there. In the Book of Numbers (23:22), God is described as being “like the horns of a wild ox.” In Psalm 18(:3), God is described as being “the horn of my salvation;” meaning, the horn of a bull. Even the Cherubim which the throne of God sits on are sometimes described as having the body of a bull or a lion. The bull was a symbol of strength and fertility for the Hebrews (and for many other cultures at the time).
The bull was a symbol of God’s strength and fertility, and even represented the presence of God himself. So the golden calves in those temples weren’t so much the issue for the Prophet Amos. The issue was that the people were worshipping the symbols and signs of God rather than God himself. They were worshipping the “smells and bells,” rather than God himself. And, as we heard, Amos got the door slammed in his face for saying that.
We like all those tangible aspects of our worship. We like to see and hear; we like to taste and smell; we like to touch. It makes God more “real.” And while that’s true, the kind of worship we’re ultimately going for is worship “in spirit and in truth.” Jesus says that in the Gospel of John (4:21-24). Spoken prayer is good, but it’s better when our prayers are true. Kneeling is good, but it’s better when we kneel out of reverence and love for God. Eating and drinking at communion time is good, but it’s better when we digest and savor the Spirit of God we’re taking in.
We like all those tangible aspects of our worship—and we should. But, at the same time, Jesus says to worship “in spirit and in truth.” And when we look at the Letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians we can understand why.
Saint Paul puts out there essentially a list of all the good things God gives his people. God has blessed us, made us holy, destined us for adoption; giving us redemption, forgiveness, wisdom and insight. It’s basically a laundry list of reasons why we worship God. But all these gifts God has for us are...spiritual. Blessedness, holiness, adoption, redemption, forgiveness, wisdom, insight—those are things we experience “in spirit.” Our bodily senses aren’t really part of it.
And so, worshipping God includes the “smells and bells,” but it goes beyond them too. Worshipping God necessarily involves the spirit, because that’s where God’s blessings are mostly encountered. For instance, it’s one thing to go into the confessional and to hear the priest say, “I absolve you from your sins.” But it’s another to be humble before God and to feel that forgiveness “in spirit and in truth.”
It’s one thing to say the words of the Our Father. But it’s another to really hear and take to heart what it is we’re praying for. It’s one thing to give someone the Sign of Peace. But it’s another to truly wish the peace of Christ upon someone.
All the physical aspects of our worship are meant to be like a springboard, a jumping off point for worship “in spirit and in truth.” And that really takes a lifetime of trial and error to experience what it means to worship in spirit. But that’s where the Lord is guiding us.
Catholic worship is known for its “smells and bells.” We surround ourselves here with all sorts of things that affect our senses. May those tangible, physical things help us to offer not only our voices, our gestures, our bread and wine, but also our spirit. In the end, God is spirit. What better and truer way to worship him than to lay open our spirit before him, in this place, and at this altar.