Readers should go to their computers and google “The Bad Vicar” to watch a very amusing video about the contrast between religion and spirituality.
A contemporary couple bounce into church to say “hello” and are questioned by the vicar regarding to whom they wish to offer the greeting. The couple explains that they are not particularly “religious” but they are “spiritual” and are “interested” in parish life. The vicar repeats the words “religious,” “spiritual” and “interested,” and then remarks rhetorically “Are you testing me, Satan?” The British video extends such sarcasm throughout its two or three witty minutes.
Much more seriously, but just as provocatively, a new book entitled “Sabbath” by Dan Allender in the Ancient Practices Series from Nelson Publishers offers worthy reflections on the meaning of the ancient day of rest that Christians, Jews and Moslems observe in respective ways. The writer investigates various topics such as silence, meals, joy, family life, work and consumerism, among others, and supports his considerations by various quotes from modern psychologists and scriptural texts. While most of what the author writes is insightful, the Catholic reader will be struck by the lack of appreciation for the sacramental, ritual and ceremonial aspects that are so integral to traditional religion. It is true that Sabbath observance can degenerate into a hollow rite born more of habit than faith. But the Sabbath (or the Lord’s Day for Christians) as a day of rewarding and gracious human enterprises seems more a postmodern invention than a biblical mandate. Ethnic foods, fine wines, quality films, frank conversations, an invalid warmly visited, a fine day fishing, and a football well tossed and well caught are gratifying experiences that ennoble the fabric of human existence and might even deepen one’s sense of the divine. But such a postmodern Sabbath without the faithful proclamation of Scripture, without authentic preaching on the Gospel, without the sacramental sharing of Christ’s body and blood, without the support of the believing assembly, is not the first day of the week celebration from which our spiritual ancestors drew their strength and through which our spiritual ancestors adored and worshipped God the Father through Christ.
Clearly, Christ is the operative word here. God is present and adorable throughout his whole creation. He may be found in fresh tulips and insightful books and tasty dinners with homemade biscuits. But Jesus Christ entered history 2,000 ago to offer mankind a more profound appreciation of God than the most satisfying human experience could ever suggest. The entire Old Testament bore witness to Christ; the holy days of Judaism anticipated him; the challenged Jews cried out for him. Then in the fullness of time, God’s Son became flesh through the Virgin Mary. In the man Jesus Christ he denounced sin, called for repentance, won redemption, established a Church, instituted sacraments, and commissioned his disciples to bring his message of good news to the nations. Sabbath observance, or better, Lord’s Day observance that fails to focus on Jesus Christ and his historical mission falls far short of the significance of this hallowed day.
Certainly the Lord’s Day should find mankind pursuing nobler deeds than purchasing tires at Sears Automotive or taking advantage of coupons at CVS. Undoubtedly, fine thoughts of relaxing in a meadow, taking a bracing walk on the beach, making a contemplative visit to a museum or the camaraderie of softball are all restorative to the human person. After all, “the Sabbath was made for man. …” But recall also that “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Sunday observance that fails to focus on the historical Jesus Christ and his legacy and his redemptive plan is not the refreshment that God’s faithful people must observe. Just as Jesus is the center of history, so Jesus must be the center of Sunday. Sabbath fulfillment and Sabbath meaning are not the fruit of human aspirations.
Authentic Sabbath joy is the result of faith in Jesus Christ who is heard in his Gospel, partaken in his body and blood, witnessed in one’s fellow worshipers, and sustained by ancient tradition. A Sunday that is not braced by the Church’s traditional, sacramental, Christian ritual is an attempt at spirituality without religion and ultimately it will prove an idle hope, an unfulfilled promise, a cheat and a disappointment.