Jason’s Questions: #1 Why Do I Drag Myself Out of Bed on Sunday Mornings?

With this post, I am beginning a series of posts in which I will address questions that, in one way or another, always bugged me as a Protestant because the Protestant answers to them never satisfied me.[1]  In my experience, these questions seem to bug a lot of rank-and-file Protestants.  Speaking for myself, before I began investigating Catholicism, I was pretty much resigned to not having good answers to them.  In fact, I became at one point what I’ll call a “Christian skeptic” on these issues, reaching the conclusion that good answers to my questions were simply “unknowable” this side of eternity.

The problem, though, was that all of my questions dealt directly with how I live here and now–not just with whether I’ll make it to heaven–so it was difficult to blow them off.  They also seemed to me to be pretty basic questions about the Christian faith, and I never could bring myself to fully accept that a good and loving God would leave us without good answers to them.  As a consequence, they continued to gnaw at the back of my mind.[2]

When I began looking into Catholicism, I was dumbfounded to find that the Catholic
Church actually had good answers to my questions.  And, what’s more, all the answers pointed straight to Jesus.  That was really shocking because I’d been told the biggest problem with Catholicism was either that it ignored Jesus or covered Him up in layers of superstition and religious mumbo-jumbo.  How wrong I was.

So let’s turn to the first question: “Why do I drag myself out of bed on Sunday mornings?” As a Protestant, the best answer I got was: (1) the New Testament indicated that the church met on the first day of the week; (2) the Book of Hebrews told us “not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together;” and (3) throughout the Bible, “worship” is important.  This answer fell short for me for a few reasons.  First, why was the fact that
the New Testament said the early Christians met on the first day of the week dispositive? The New Testament also indicated that the early Christians met in their homes, but, for the most part, we didn’t do that.  And why did I have to attend a “worship service” to satisfy the obligation to assemble with other Christians?  If the whole point was “assembling,” couldn’t I do that at Denny’s at a more convenient time?

More fundamentally than all of this, though, was the question of how exactly God was
worshiped in the services I attended.  At least in my experience, it was quite clear that the main event of these services was the sermon, and that included worship services at which communion was served.  This centrality of the sermon seemed to me to leave the quality of worship up to how good the sermon was on a given Sunday (or, maybe, the quality of the music).  If the sermon and/or the music was “good” and got me worked up into a sufficiently pious state, then I could say I felt like I had “worshiped” God.  But would God really leave us with a system where worship was dependent upon the quality of the preaching or singing?  That seemed a pretty thin reed to support the worship of Almighty God.  I also searched my Bible in vain for any indication that that was the case.

Where did I ever get this idea that worship primarily consists in listening to a sermon or singing or listening to music?  The New Testament doesn’t say any such thing.  Indeed, the New Testament says relatively little about early Christian worship, other than indicating that it included preaching, prayer, and communion (which, from the earliest times, also has been called the “Eucharist” from the Greek word for thanksgiving).[3]  And the Old Testament (which does contain a lot of detail about how God was to be worshiped) doesn’t indicate anywhere that the ancient Jews primarily worshiped God by singing or listening to their priests sermonize.  Rather, the worship of God in the Old Testament quite clearly centered on the sacrifices the priests were to make.

If Jesus Christ is God, and if He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8), why would the worship of God in the Old Testament center on a tangible, perceptible sacrifice while worship after the time of Christ would have nothing to do with such sacrifice, except in the sense we might remember, in a “spiritual” (i.e., intangible) way, Christ’s tangible sacrifice on the Cross?  This became a headscratcher to me.  Even when we celebrated
communion, it was typically described as “just a symbol,” and there was virtually no explanation for why it was important to take it, other than because Christ had commanded His followers to do so.[4]

Once I began investigating Catholic doctrine, I discovered that the Catholic view of the Eucharist lined up with the Old Testament’s emphasis on tangible sacrifice and gave a reason for why we took communion, beyond simply that “Jesus said so.”  This is because, to the Catholic, the celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday (indeed, at every Mass) is a re-presentation of Christ’s once-and-for-all-time sacrifice on Calvary in a real and substantial way since Jesus is “really present” in the consecrated bread and wine.[5]  The technical term for how this happens is “transubstantiation.”  This means that, in the act of consecration, the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of the resurrected Christ Himself.  So, when I go to church as a Catholic, I’m going so that I can really receive Him and, by receiving Him, partake in His eternal life.  See John 6; Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1406.  In other words, I belong to the Church, His mystical Body, so that I can receive the Eucharist, His true Body.  How’s that for a reason to get up on Sundays and go to church?  Indeed, how’s that for a reason to make it to church as much as I possibly can?  And, at bottom, what’s the reason?  Jesus.

Because Jesus is truly and uniquely present in the consecrated bread and wine, the Eucharist is, to the Catholic, the “sum and summary” of the Christian faith. CCC No. 1327.  As a consequence, as I was investigating Catholicism, I couldn’t dismiss this doctrine as some interesting curiosity to discuss in a comparative religions class or in a review of different Christian views of communion.  Rather, if the Catholics were right about this, it meant that, if I really wanted Jesus, I had to bring myself into communion with the Catholic Church.  But if the Catholics were wrong, it meant they were idolaters who
worshiped ordinary bread and wine, as the Catholic author Peter Kreeft has pointed out. This was serious stuff.  I didn’t see how I could say, “Well, I can agree to disagree with the Catholics on this and go my merry way.”  I either had to accept the doctrine as true myself and re-orient my life to it or, if I decided it wasn’t true, I had to dedicate myself to fighting the Catholic Church as a monstrous apostasy.  Anything other than those two options, it seemed to me, would be unworthy of what was at stake in this question.

So far, on the question of whether the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is true, everything I’ve said has centered on what it means to “worship” God as “worship” is revealed in the totality of Scripture.  In addition to this, of course, is what Jesus had to say in John 6 about “eating His flesh and drinking His blood” and how, on Holy Thursday, He said, “This is My body,” and “This is My blood.” Others, such as here at Catholic Answers,  have addressed these passages in detail, so I won’t do so here.  Suffice it to say I find the Catholic interpretation of these passages far more persuasive and consistent with the totality of Scripture than I find the Protestant ones.  If readers would like to have further discussion on this topic, though, I’d be happy to do so in the comment boxes.

I freely acknowledge that none of the above “proves” the Catholic position on transubstantiation.  For myself, though, as I came closer to the Catholic Church, I had to acknowledge that there’s no argument out there that “proves” the Resurrection, either (if by “prove” you mean “demonstrate beyond all possibility of doubt”).  The Catholic view of
the Eucharist, like the belief that the Resurrection actually occurred, requires me to accept that miracles happen.  And, when it came down to it, that’s why, for all the years I was a Protestant, I rejected the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence.  At the end of the day, it had nothing to do with how I interpreted the words of Scripture.  That was all a cover for an inability to believe that God could possibly love me so much that He’d allow me to be
that close to Himself in such a miraculous way.  And now, having crossed this hurdle and looking forward to receiving Him for the first time next month, the words of my favorite hymn as a kid have taken on a new and deeper meaning:  “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene.”

[1]          By “Protestant,” I mean folks who (for the most part) would purport to subscribe to the doctrinal positions articulated in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds but who: (1) claim that the Bible is the “sole” ultimate authority for Christians today; and (2) reject the Catholic Church’s claim to be the visible Church Christ founded.

[2]          I am aware that there is an alternative interpretation of why I couldn’t let these particular questions go, which posits that those of us who are drawn to the Catholic Church from Protestantism simply have a psychological need for more certainty than the “freedom” of Protestantism provides.  I’ve given this idea much prayer and thought, and I don’t buy it for a few reasons.  First, I find it hard to believe that folks as seemingly diverse as Cardinal Blessed John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Scott Hahn, Dale Ahlquist, Stephen Ray, Marcus Grodi, and Mark Shea (other Protestant converts to Catholicism) all, in reality, just suffer from the same psychological tic as I do.

Second, the theory doesn’t account for how the process of being drawn to the Catholic Church actually works.  None of the conversion stories I’ve read indicate that
the convert started on the path to Rome by saying, “I’m tired of thinking.  I want to go find a ‘church’ that will just tell me what to believe about all the important things so I don’t have to think about them any more.”  Rather, the Catholic convert typically starts out with some particular issue that he’s having a hard time resolving, so he starts looking for better answers than he’s found in his own particular Protestant tradition.  Eventually, he comes across the Catholic answer and is surprised to find how good it is.  He then goes and investigates the Catholic answer to some other question he’s had for a while, and finds that’s a good one, too.  It’s only after this has gone on for a while that the convert begins to think that perhaps the Catholic Church has such good answers because it really is what it claims to be–the Church Christ founded while He was on earth.  That’s when the convert begins to panic and try to think of reasons not to become Catholic.  For me at least,
this panic was driven in part by a desire not to give up my role as the final arbiter of what constitutes true Chrstian doctrine.  Unless I’m completely deluding myself, the very last thing I wanted was to enter a Church that reserved that function for itself.

Finally, on this “psychology” point, I can’t believe that Protestants become (or stay) Protestant simply because they believe Protestantism is true, but Catholics become (or stay) Catholic only because they have an unhealthy need for certainty.  I also don’t believe that people become or stay Protestant simply for psychological reasons.  Moreover, if either (or both) groups are driven primarily by psychological issues, then discussion of any of the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism is meaningless, and there’s no hope of ever arriving at the truth.  Again, I can’t believe that’s the solution when our whole religion is based upon Jesus Christ, Who is Truth Himself, and Who promised we would know the Truth and that the Truth would set us free.  See John 8:32.

[3]           It’s not my purpose here to denigrate sermons and singing, both of which I love and both of which are an integral part of the Mass. Instead, it’s simply to point out that, in my experience, Protestant worship services, because they lack the Real Presence in the Eucharist, almost inevitably become exercises in which the thing that matters most is how well the preacher and/or the singers perform.

[4]           I’m speaking here about my own personal experience in “evangelical”-type Protestant churches.  I do recognize that there is variation among Protestants regarding the nature of the Eucharist, with some taking a “higher” view than the “just a symbol” approach.  However, their views of the Eucharist, while more “Catholic” in a sense, are not tied to the Catholic doctrine of the Church (which I’ll discuss in a separate post), and the Eucharist and the Church go hand-in-hand: the Eucharist is His true Body and
Blood, and the Church is His mystical Body.  I ultimately came to see that you can’t have one without the other.

[5]               It’s important to note that, in celebrating the Eucharist, Catholics are NOT, as I’ve heard so many times, improperly “sacrificing Christ all over again.”  Rather, as I’ve already mentioned, the Eucharist is a re-presentation of Christ’s one-time sacrifice.  See Catechism of the Catholic Church Nos. 1365-67.  Because He was both fully human and fully divine, Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary is BOTH a temporal event, occurring in human history, AND an eternal event, transcending human history.  Similarly, the celebration of the Eucharist is an event that occurs in time but also, miraculously, an event that participates in Christ’s death on Calvary almost 2,000 years ago.

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12 Responses to Jason’s Questions: #1 Why Do I Drag Myself Out of Bed on Sunday Mornings?

  1. Brent says:

    “But would God really leave us with a system where worship was dependent upon the quality of the preaching or singing?”

    This reflection made a significant impact on my journey as well. We espoused to be a church of “grace”, but our very worship of God implied the spiritual “have” and “have nots”, which implied both works and assumed that in order to worship God one had to be able to comprehend sufficiently a sermon and/or “enter into” the musical experience. Thus, if one had a low IQ or lack of musical penchant–sorry, try again next time.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Brilliant, Jason!

    I traveled a similar mental pathway to the one you describe here regarding the Eucharist – you hit the issues right on the head.

    I grew up Baptist, spent some time as a garden-variety evangelical, got sucked into the (Protestant) ‘house church’ movement for four years, and then became a Catholic in 1999. FYI, here’s part of my conversion story on Steve Ray’s website: http://www.catholic-convert.com/community/conversion-stories/ (Scroll down to “Kathie’s Story… Letter Protestant Friend”). Looking forward to hearing more of yours. 🙂

    God bless you.

    • Nikki says:

      I read your story and could relate to so much of what you said-especially that part about the arts. Wow, it really took guts to write all that to a friend. I’d be curious to know how that turned out!

  3. John says:

    I’ll bite.

    It’s quite a stretch to suggest that we (Protestants) tend to believe that the quality of our worship is dependent on the quality of the sermon and/or music. Those that do are bound to be disappointed; we’ve all heard service music that wasn’t very good or sermons that fell short. Many of us belong to small congregations where the members’ abilities are limited. But we still get up on Sunday mornings and worship anyway, because we want to and we need to, not just because it’s God’s command.

    I do think we should have communion every Sunday. This varies a lot between congregations; at ours we do not have it nearly often enough.

    The NT certainly does mention music as an important aspect to worship. Jesus and his disciples sang at the Last Supper. Singing is commanded or indicated in Ephesians 5, Hebrews 2, Colossians 3. It’s likely that John 1 itself was an early Christian hymn. And in the OT, singing and music in worship are clearly commanded in the Psalms.

    As far as the significance of sermons in worship, there is Acts 20, describing an extremely long homily which was apparently the main forerunner for those in our congregation.

  4. Jason says:

    Thanks for the comment, John. Just a few thoughts. I didn’t mean to imply that folks who attend Protestant worship services aren’t really interested in worshiping God, and I apologize if I seemed to do so. I’m just saying that, looking at it from a systemic perspective, the way God is “worshiped” in Protestant worship services by a person sitting in the pew is: (1) singing, (2) listening to music, and (3) listening to the sermon. I agree wholeheartedly with you that those things are set out in the NT as part of worship. All I’m saying is that, without the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, these other things have a tendency to degenerate into a performance.

  5. zeeehjee says:

    Jason (and Nikki),

    Thanks so much for the blog. Those of us who are Cradle Catholics benefit so much from converts sharing their conversion stories. I wish EVERY convert would have a blog, but it probably is good they don’t because then I’d be even more consumed by these wonderful stories than I already am. I’m a young priest (29, ordained last month) and I just want you to know how inspired I am by you and others like you.

    Some thoughts on this post…

    This point comes up all the time from converts. Most protestants would surely disagree with you but the whole Mega Church thing really throws a wrench into such disagreements. Mega-Church Protestantism, from this outsiders view, seems to be so competitive. When I was in college, the young evangelicals always had a huge dilemma on their hands: “Which Church should I attend?” Music, preaching, age of other congregants, were all things they considered. But they never seemed to ask, “Which Church teaches truth?” I didn’t notice that at the time but its something I think about now quite often. Occasionally I’d hear one of them say that they disagreed with the theology of one place or another, but this didn’t rule this Church out if the other elements were good. (And, of course, this also means that they are using their own private interpretation of scripture to judge other people’s private interpretations of scripture, which is another problem)

    I don’t think God intended for his disciples to face such a dilemma. This is why he established ONE Church that would remain HOLY because of his constant guidance which EVERYONE would attend under the guidance of APOSTLES AND THEIR SUCCESSORS. I never had to worry which Church I would go to. God made the decision for me. Sure, I often wish the music was better. Sure, I’ve heard many flat homilies that didn’t do much for me directly (though because of God’s abiding presence in his Church the homily ALWAYS speaks to you, even if the message hidden deep within is God telling us to pray for better homilies). But in the end I’m connected to Christ’s body through the sacraments, which are guarded by his Holy Spirit working through the successors to those men he personally appointed to be the shepherds of his Church.

    Sorry for the length. I’m not even sure if I stayed on topic.

    Fr. B

    • Jason says:

      Thank you for your comments and encouragement, Father B! You must be reading my mind because my next post is going to be on the question, “Why Is It So Hard to Pick a Church?” God bless you as you begin your priesthood.

  6. Very interesting points you have noted , thankyou for posting . “Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over.” by Bella Abzug.

  7. Tom Locker says:

    Father B.
    Many of my family and friends are protestant and they seem to switch churches (church-hopping) a lot. Usually, it seems to me, this is due to a personality clash between them and someone else in the congregation. This could be a minister, elder or just another layperson.

    When I ask them your question (shouldn’t you attend the church you believe teaches truth?) they look at me as though I were from Mars. Doesn’t seem to be on their radar. Could this be because they are expected to figure out the truth themselves from their own reading of scripture? One friend told me he picked his church because they served lunch after the service!

    Justin – the thing that bothers me the most about the music at protestant services is how the musicians are front and center. To me it is more like going to a concert than a religious service (and often the music is too loud (but I live in a college town and they seem to think the students want loud “rock” music at their worship services)). At two protestant churches that I’m familiar with many of the musicians aren’t even members of the church – playing there on Sunday morning is their “gig.” Also, I don’t like the applause after each performance, although unfortunately this has started to occur during Mass too.

  8. Pingback: Jason’s Questions: #4 If Grace Is So Amazing, Why Don’t I Feel It More Often? | The Roman Road

  9. Pingback: Jason’s Questions: #8 Have I Ever Called Mary Blessed? | The Roman Road

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