Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In an episode of “Parks and Recreation” (a show that belongs in the discussion of best comedies after “The Office”), the town of Pawnee, IN is running a budget youth basketball league. Ron Swanson and Andy Dwyer are tasked with coaching the two teams. Ron’s team is disciplined and coached in the finer points of basketball, running drills while also learning valuable life lessons (explained by the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness). Andy’s team is the exact opposite. Ron teaches the boys how the game works and how to take the game seriously. Andy is a giant child himself and feeds into the chaotic, undirected energy of his team. Eventually, Tom Haverford steps in as a referee because he has a referee shirt from his stint working at Lady Foot Locker. Unfortunately, Tom knows nothing about basketball and is angry at Ron, so his frequent whistles and insane calls make the game more of a mess, leading to Ron going full Bobby Knight and throwing a chair across the court. It’s a great show.
In the beginning, humanity lived in proper order and harmony. Much like Ron’s team, everything was in its place and served its purpose. Adam and Eve walked in harmony with God. In that walk, they were somewhat like Andy’s team – children, innocent and energetic, enjoying the sheer joy of play. The serpent’s cunning whispers, like Tom’s misplaced whistles, introduced chaos and division. And ever since, the human race has been on a search for meaning, healing, order, and peace. The good news for us is that God has not remained aloof from our search or suffering. He has entered into our chaos and showed us the way to order. In the Cross of Christ we find the definitive reordering we need: no longer are we stuck in a haphazard, no-holds-barred fight. In Christ we are turned back to the God who made us, taught once again the fundamentals of human life, and enabled to experience the joy we had in the beginning. This truth is brought home for us when we celebrate the Church’s liturgical prayer, especially the Mass.
The purpose of the Mass is not only to make us present once again at Calvary, to re-present to us the Last Supper in that upper room in Jerusalem. The Mass gives us a glimpse of the order, discipline, joy, energy, and beauty to which we are called. It is a reminder that we can attain a certain measure of that right ordering here on earth, and it is an invitation to look for the fulfillment of our desire for the perfection of order in heaven. The Mass is a delicate balance of the discipline and respect shown by Ron’s team and the exuberant, spontaneous, and anarchic bedlam of Andy’s team. In fact, in a real way, both are necessary. We can sum up the heart of the Mass when, at the end of every preface, we join our voices to the choirs of angels singing “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth! Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts!” This joyful hymn sung before God’s throne is joined by the cacophony of human voices, God’s children gathered before Him. But we do not come in a state of disarray. Rather, the Church’s liturgy provides us with a structure for our prayer, a method by which we are able to enter into the fullness of the mystery before us. We may not fully grasp what we are celebrating, as Andy’s team did not fully grasp the seriousness of a basketball game. Nevertheless, they knew where they were and that they were part of the game. Just so, even when we do not fully understand every action or word of the Mass, we are still part of it, still invited into it, still able to participate and pray with the Church’s prayer. The orderly structure of the Mass encourages deeper understanding. Those repeated actions, unchanging year after year, become like fundamental skills, the repetition of which encourages a deeper knowledge and understanding. Ron shows his team order, Andy shows his team joy. The Mass ought to teach and cultivate both order and joy in our hearts.
But what about Tom? Our unqualified referee, busy holding a grudge against Ron, steps in and promptly abuses his power. At first it seems funny, in an uncomfortable sort of way. In fact, his abuse of power ruins the game for Ron’s disciplined squad and deprives Andy’s sugar-fueled boys of a genuine experience of the sport. In it all, Tom becomes the center of attention. The chaotic disorder is clear. In youth basketball, the coaches and referees should never be the center of attention. Likewise, when Mass is celebrated, the priest and other ministers serving in the sanctuary are not to be the center of attention, but rather must direct attention to the object of worship, the Lord. When we who serve in the sanctuary ignore the rules of play (the rubrics of the Mass, the proper ordering of our worship), the whole Mass devolves into disorder. Worse, those present for the Mass are deprived of the full experience of what Mass can be, just as the kids were deprived of a genuine experience of basketball.
The Mass teaches us a deeper lesson about the spiritual life. A life of discipleship is a serious thing and it takes discipline to live the Christian life well. In the same breath we can confidently state that living according to the Gospel and in relationship with Jesus brings unbounded joy that must be expressed. And every so often, Tom shows up to cause chaos: either in the form of a person or situation that obstructs our path to the true living out of the Gospel, or in the form of some personal decision that brings disorder and chaos into our hearts and minds. Mass reminds us of what is – there is a spiritual order to the world, and we really participate in it both as individuals and as a community. Mass reminds us of what can be – we can find order and discipline for those parts of our lives that are disorderly and undisciplined. Mass reminds us that in the midst of our chaos – whether caused by Tom, or caused by Andy’s lax approach, or caused by Ron’s rigid methods – Jesus wants to be present to bring our lives into harmony and good order, structuring them so that they can be beautiful creations oriented to his love and looking forward to eternity.