About two months ago, when I began to provide video of Sunday Liturgy online, some of my friends took the opportunity to joke about my ambitions; they suggested that the video recordings of Sunday Liturgy were a thinly veiled ploy to build a television empire. I was quite amenable to the suggestion and, since that time, I’ve been working on plans to become a televangelist.
There have been a few obstacles along my path to worldwide recognition. I haven’t been able to find a gold-plated microphone, my hair won’t stay in a big up-do, and I am noticeably lacking in drama, both professionally and personally. Despite my many deficiencies, you folks at home will be able to continue to watch Liturgy while lounging in your pajamas.
Perhaps, I shouldn’t poke fun at televangelists but it’s just so easy to do so. There is a glaring contradiction about the life of someone who claims to preach the Gospel while, at the same time, builds a collection of Rolexes and Range Rovers. Perhaps, not all televangelists indulge in crass materialism but there remains a certain aura of implausibility about that genre of public figure.
Today’s Scripture readings contain references to a type of religious experience that might appear to be as implausible as the claims of miraculous healings by some televangelists. The first reading says that, when the disciples experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit, they “began to speak in different tongues.” (Acts 2:4) The second reading contains a more generalized reference to ecstatic religious experience when Paul writes about the many “different kinds of spiritual gifts.” (1 Cor. 12:4)
Today, ecstatic religious experience, like speaking in tongues, is often considered by members of organized religion to be eccentric if not preposterous. In the ancient world, however, ecstatic religious experience was considered conventional and appropriate. Phenomena like speaking in tongues and spontaneous prophecy were not hallmarks of faithful religion in the ancient world, they were hallmarks of all religion. The crowds in Jerusalem on Pentecost would not have thought it unusual for the disciples to speak in tongues. The crowds judged the disciples’ speech to be unusual because it motivated the people in the crowds to praise “the mighty acts of God.” (Acts 2:11)
Ecstatic religious experience remained an important part of Christian worship for a century or so after Jesus’ death. Even at the height of its popularity, however, ecstatic religious experience was given a conditional value. The disciples of Jesus accepted ecstatic religious experience but required it to be supported and validated by the perceptible effect of bringing people to conversion and faith in the Trinity.
Although things like speaking in tongues and spontaneous prophecy are considered today to be relics of a distant past, the requirement that believers demonstrate the authenticity of their faith through visible effects is still expected and obligatory. The manifestations of the gifts of the Holy Spirit have evolved somewhat but the obligation to give evidence of one’s faith remains, and the required evidence remains the same as in the past. The appropriate evidence of an authentic faith is the evidence manifested by the disciples on the day of Pentecost, that is, they inspired others to praise God.
The inspired preaching of the disciples on Pentecost brought to mind an issue that I’ve considered several times during the coronavirus pandemic. From the very first days of the “Stay at home” orders, some Catholic individuals and groups around the country complained about the temporary cessation of Sunday Liturgy. Some of my co-religionists feel that they have been unjustly deprived of easy access to Holy Communion. In some cases, the complainants have suggested that the inability to receive Holy Communion might be more detrimental to them than the coronavirus. Given the sobering effects of the Covid19 infection, those complaints seem to be an expression of consumer values rather than Catholic values.
We live in a culture that values every human activity, including religion, as a consumer commodity. It is crassly materialistic and self-serving to complain that a reasonable response to a global public health crisis is intentionally harmful to one’s liberty or spirituality. Only an inveterate consumer would speak about the regular reception of Holy Communion in the same terms as the regular habit of dining out on the weekend.
The prayers of the Liturgy of the Eucharist make it clear that the reception of Holy Communion is an act of worship addressed to the Trinity. The Third Eucharistic Prayer, for example, addresses God the Father and says, “all you have created rightly gives you praise.” There is a glaring contradiction involved in treating an act of worship as a personal entitlement or an object to be obtained.
It might sound as implausible as some of the claims one sees on television, but authentic worship of God inspires repentance and reform more readily than does worship of consumer culture. A compelling witness today would be for Jesus’ disciples to live as if they belong to God rather than as if God belongs to them.
Authentic faith in Jesus necessarily produces the visible effects of increasing one’s faithfulness and inspiring others to repentance and reform. As implausible as it might sound, I claim that the goal of faithful religion is to praise “the mighty acts of God” (Acts 2:11) rather than to praise the mighty appetites of consumer culture.