by Tony Equale
In a scene from the movie “The Way,” a grieving father played by Martin Sheen stands in awed silence at mass at the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Northwestern Spain as four men fire up an immense thurible hanging from the rafters and then swing it pouring out clouds of aromatic smoke through the cavernous church. I think it’s fairly correct to say that none of the people present at that event, their hearts swelling with the sense of the sacred evoked by the smell of incense, were aware of the origins of the practice.
The use of incense derived from its function at the live sacrifices offered to the gods of the pre-Christian mediterranean world — Jupiter, Athena, Isis, Mithra — in order to cover the stench of blood and the rotting remains of slaughtered animals. Even in those days when incense served a very practical purpose, its association with the prayer and self-surrender of sacrifice gave it the unique power to evoke the numinous. Early in the 4th century, when Christians were given the task by the Roman Empire of replacing the official “state religion” with their own, they modeled their rituals on the liturgies that were the established state functions they were required to maintain. Placating whatever divinity was responsible for Rome’s ascendency and security was an unwavering responsibility regardless of what religion was entrusted to carry it out.
Many features of what became standard Catholic ritual assumed their character from the pagan liturgies they had to replace. The transformation of the eucharistic supper into the “sacrifice of the mass” is the prime example. What had originally been a shared meal of equal participants seated around a common table, was converted after the Roman “promotion” into a stylized dramatic event performed by one man, facing an “altar,” conspicuously set apart from and with his back to the people, reciting preset formularies and offering a “sacrifice” designed to so “please God” that it would guarantee that punishment would be averted, requests met and prayers answered. It is entirely plausible that the official trappings were so thoroughly preserved in the transition that an uninformed worshipper of the former gods, paying a random visit to a temple service obscured by clouds of incense, would not even have noticed that there had been a “change of gods” and of religion.
Religion is “contact”
The social phenomenon we know as “religion” is contact — contact with “God.” This “contact” is mediated by the affective attitudes, rituals and prayer practices that concretize the relationship of its members, collectively and individually, to the source of their being and well-being. The keynote and ground of religious contact is prayer and ritual practice. These practical expressions are the central reality of religion. They reveal what the people think “God” is, how they think they are related (to “him” or “her” or “it”), and what they expect to get from contact. Their expectations are based on what they believe “God” can and is willing to do … and why. We will return to all these essentials of religious contact shortly, but right now I want to introduce the second, derivative face of religion: its theoretical justification also known as creed and theology.
In this second step, speculative and theoretical systems — theology — are devised for the purpose of explaining why the contact-practice in question makes sense. It’s important to grasp this relationship. Practice is primary; secondary reflection (resulting in creeds and moral codes and their justifications) is derivative. We can see this functioning in our example of the Catholic mass. The very notion that the death of Jesus was a “sacrifice” offered for the “redemption” of the world was not an aboriginal Christian belief but rather a subsequent development derived from the ritual practice of the “sacrifice of the mass.” This way of looking at things might seem to reverse the order of understanding we are accustomed to, but it reflects the real sequence of events and their causes.
Certainly, we can find allusions to Jesus’ death as “sacrifice” scattered here and there in the NT, and many of the prophetic passages of the OT that inspired the early followers of Jesus suggested the “redemptive” effect of suffering. But such a notion was not even a formal belief, much less the dominant theme of the early Christian kerygma. The Roman Catholic theology of “redemption by sacrifice” was actually a later collage which integrated into a coherent doctrine a number of disparate elements selected from what was by then a three hundred year old corpus of Christian beliefs. Its purpose was to generate a worldview that would support the new Roman Catholic “sacrifice of the mass” which replaced the old Roman pagan ritual. In the final analysis that meant that Catholic soteriology — the theology of redemption — was basically designed to explain the rituals, prayer practice and religious attitudes of mediterranean polytheistic worshippers in the centuries leading up to the common era. I say it that way because in reality, Catholic theology emanated from the religiosity of the Roman people supposedly “converted” from paganism to Christianity by edict of the emperor; the real “conversion,” however, was actually going on in the opposite direction. Christianity, pressed into service by the empire became “Catholic;” it found itself obliged to conform in ritual and prayer — the terms of “contact” — to the norms of Greco-Roman polytheistic paganism. Catholic “theology,” and from there “creeds and codes,” were secondary and reflected that foundational conformation.
An inversion of values
This dynamic of “the primacy of practice over theory” led to a profound inversion of theological values within Christianity. It occurred throughout the entire Christian system but we can see it playing itself out most clearly in the evolution of the Catholic “mass.” Starting with the memorial meal of the gospels, the acceptance of Catholic employment as the official Roman state religion turned the eucharist into the imitation of a pagan animal sacrifice, something very different from a shared meal. The prayer attitudes and relational imagery of each kind of ritual are poles apart — definitely contrary and perhaps even contradictory to one another. The meal , any meal where a number of people eat together, is a natural symbol of human community. A memorial meal, in addition, grounds that community in the person being memorialized who in this case is Jesus himself, presented in the gospels as the very food to be eaten, the bond that holds all together. That such a community action is then called “eucharistía,” thanksgiving, highlights the religiously radical nature of the earliest Christian communities. The original Christian eucharist embodied the kind of “contact with God” promoted by Jesus himself as a creative reform and development of Judaism. “God,” in this conception is not “God” as we thought he was. This “God” is not like any other god. It suggests that “God” as most people conceive the term, does not exist. Jesus’ “God” is “Love” — specifically human love: the love we have for one another. It is our sharing and mutual support that, through the binding power of Jesus’ love and vision, binds us all — makes contact —with “God.” Please notice: there is no notion of “divine omnipotence,” “appeasement,” “placating” an angry potentate, no begging for favors, no appeal for forgiveness or fear of punishment. What is evoked by the shared meal is human community. That is the invitation of Jesus … that is contact with “God.”
A sacrifice offered to the “gods,” on the other hand, does not evoke the interpersonal interaction and mutual sharing symbolized by a meal. In an animal sacrifice, yes, there is also a group of people, and they also eat of what is sacrificed, but the focus is entirely on “placating” the powerful and potentially dangerous “god” whose apparently bloodthirsty needs are being met by the slaughter of the animal. The grotesque practice itself implies a number of things about “God” that are at least contrary to the belief system promoted by Jesus and his original followers, and more likely utterly incoherent from any human point of view. Let me explain.
First it implies that “God” answers prayers. That means that “he” can (or wants to) have his mind changed by human intervention. He must be a “god” whom you must imagine either doesn’t know what you need — and receives new information from those praying to him, and can be persuaded by their prayers — or doesn’t care and can be made to care by a rhetorical plea that moves his heart and convinces him why his intervention is the only option left for the solution of your problem. In all these cases you must imagine a “god” who is more powerful … but less intelligent … than we are.
The practice of animal sacrifice also assumes that “god” has some sort of need for blood or to have living things die. This is quite incoherent. The only rational explanation for such a belief must come from the primitive days of humankind’s history when it was thought that the “gods” lived on meat as we do, and that the burning of slaughtered animals turned carcasses into smoke which then rose into the heavens making the meat available to the “gods.” Even granting the expression of gratitude implied in libations and offerings of the first fruits and first born, why would our ancestors have ever thought that these things had to die and be burned unless they assumed that “god” lived in the skies and was literally fed by them through the fire and rising smoke.
All this would have been considered quite primitive even by the standards of a philosophically educated Greco Roman of the fourth century of the common era. The fact that the Catholic Church embraced this entire panoply of attitudes wholesale and reconfigured its own rituals and liturgies in order to preserve their character is a clear indication of how seriously it embraced the role assigned to it by the empire. The job of the Catholic (“Imperial”) religion was to make public display of the continuity of the accustomed piety of the Roman state. The Catholic liturgy was an official theater designed to communicate to the people that the state was faithful to the gods and there was every reason to expect that the gods would continue their support. It was primarily for the benefit of the little people who are thus reassured that their obedience to the authorities pleases “God” and if it doesn’t always guarantee favors, it is at least an investment in preventing disaster, natural and otherwise; it was worth the effort.
That the Roman liturgy came to be frozen in time with these features is standing proof that the Catholic Church did not attempt to change the pagan Roman population. Rather it changed itself, first in its rituals and formulary prayers, chanted in the temples and basilicas in imitation of the pagan rites it replaced, and then in the entire theological justification for its practices. The end result of this metamorphosis was the preservation and maintenance of the religious attitudes, prayer-forms, assumptions and moral posture of the Greco-Roman world, superficially clothed in the outward trappings of the Imperial Catholic Church, and the nearly total suppression of the religious innovations introduced by Jesus and his immediate followers. Greco Roman Christianity fundamentally disregarded Jesus’ “Way” of “making contact”and replaced it with a superficially Christianized version of the multimillennial religion of the pantheon of the pagan gods of the mediterranean basin.
In religion, “making contact” comes first. “Theory” which includes all the intellectualized and verbalized aspects of religion, follows practice. Here are a few cases in point.
Augustine was a Roman Catholic theologian who began writing at the end of the 4th century and produced his most important work in the first decades of the 5th. Catholicism was officially proclaimed the state religion of Rome in 380 but it had functioned de facto as the religion of the emperors and the empire since Constantine’s legitimation of Christianity in 312. So, it was almost a hundred years later that Augustine developed his theories about original sin and the effect of baptism in eradicating it.
The practice of infant baptism had become routine in the Catholic Church, and Augustine’s theology was an attempt to explain and justify it. The people believed that without baptism the “soul” went to hell, so to be on the safe side they baptized their children as early in life as possible. This condemnation to hell must also include the innocent, Augustine reasoned, for if personal guilt were the only cause of damnation there would be no need to baptize infants. That means we must be dealing with a natural order and a human nature that is so intrinsically corrupt and a “God” who is so implacably enraged that everyone, good or bad, is condemned; baptism and the sacraments, then, are absolutely necessary for salvation. “Being good is not good enough,” Augustine would say, “outside the church there is no salvation.” Augustine’s explanations were directed at making sense of an age old practice. There is nothing unusual here. He was following the religiosity of the people. That’s the way religion works.
But the story doesn’t end there. The theory of redemption that saw Jesus’ death as a sacrifice offered to the Father fit in perfectly with Augustine’s explanation for infant baptism. There was a reason why “God” was so enraged that he would send infants to hell, it was Original Sin; and the death of Jesus, the “son” of “God,” dying in our place, paying the price we owed “God” for Original Sin, saved us from a condemnation we all deserved. We “make contact” for salvation by joining the Church and being liberated by baptism and the sacaments from our intrinsic corruption. A tidy package indeed, and all of it an after-the-fact explanation designed to justify practice.
By Augustine’s time the Roman mass was, as we have seen, a radically revised ritualization, using the words of the last supper but completely supressing any hint of a shared meal. These modifications emphasized the eucharist’s new role as the “sacrifice” that the people were used to. Augustine’s theory of redemption not only served as backdrop for explaining infant baptism, it explained why the mass was a “sacrifice” and therefore why it was such a perfect replacement for the liturgies of the old gods and godesses of Rome. But in so doing, he provided a theological justification for maintaining an imagery about “God” that was at complete variance with the imagery offered by Jesus. Augustine’s “God” was like the old gods of Rome; they were like petulant children, small and pusillanimous, vengeful and unforgiving, always ready to have a tantrum if they weren’t treated with the “honor” that they deserved; they required constant attention. Making “contact” was always kind of “iffy;” you never knew if they would be “pleased” or not. If disaster struck in some form, personal or political or natural, you knew you had done something wrong and you’d better find out what it was and quick! It was a high-maintenance relationship, and Augustine made it all make sense. His work ensured that Jesus’ message would be drowned out in the din of things as they were.
Jesus’ ”God,” to the contrary, was low-maintenance. He was not thin-skinned and easily offended requiring constant flattery. He was a huge, generous and forgiving “God.” He loved us without measure and without alteration. He was the “only” god and quite secure in his divinity, thank you. He was our “Father,” he was LIFE, he was archē, “from the beginning.” He forgives sins and forgets about punishments. He rushes to meet us when we are still far off, welcoming us home; he binds our wounds when we have fallen among thieves, he clothes us with the splendor of kings and weeps for every sparrow that falls from the sky. These are all poetic images generated by Jesus to describe his “Father;” they were completely contrary to the “God” of sacrifice. In fact, Jesus’ Jewish “God” long ago had announced very clearly and unmistakably that he did not care about sacrifice at all. If you wanted to “make contact” with him, he said, what he asked was that you love him and love one another. It was entirely consistent with Jesus’ “theology” that sharing a meal which symbolized our love for one another — imitating the way “God” loves us — would be the kind of ritual that would “make contact” with our “Father.” This is not the “God” Augustine found implied and imagined in the ritual practices of Roman Catholicism; and in his rush to justify the ecclesiastical status quo Augustine’s theology institutionalized it for more than a thousand years.
micro to macro
In the case of the Roman mass, we can see how a political accomodation, perhaps one even considered ad hoc and temporary at the time, can become institutionalized and historically set in sacred stone and take on the character of eternal and immutable reality. Part of that process of institutionalization is accomplished by providing theoretical justification for current practice. Current practice must change first. Ordinary people, deciding to use a simple mindfully wrought meal as the means of “contact,” can provide a new way to express a common religiosity. And there’s no telling where that will go.