The 15th century Council of Basel drew the comparison between the way we are expected to behave in the presence of our civil rulers and the way we should behave in presence of God. The Council stated, "A person who is about to make a request to a secular prince takes pains to compose himself and his words by decent dress, becoming gesture, regulated speech and close attention of mind. How much more careful ought he to be in all these things when he is about to pray to almighty God in a sacred place!"
Coming into the presence of God requires a proper etiquette on our part. Yet, we seem to be less and less aware of this in our day.
Today, a very casual attitude pervades all our social interactions. Proper church etiquette, like all civil behaviour, suffers greatly these days. The way that we dress for church is casual. Sometimes more suited for the sports field or beach! Our observance of silence is casual as well. Not infrequently people chew gum in church, keep their cell phones on and talk during the liturgy.
The way that we behave in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament has changed much in the last two generations. Genuflecting when coming before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle is rarely done. At funerals and weddings, as some come to receive Holy Communion, they stop and chat with others instead of approaching the Lord in prayerful recollection. In some places, reverence to the Eucharist is withheld when the mandated rituals of purification of the sacred vessels after Communion are laid aside for a more casual disposal of the fragments of the Eucharist and the remains of the Precious Blood.
To begin, when we come to church, we are not coming to just an ordinary building. We are entering a sacred place. Yes, the church is, first of all, the People of God "made one as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one and ... the temple of God built with living stones, in which the Father is worshipped in spirit and in truth" ( Order of the Dedication of a Church, ch. II, 1). Nonetheless, the church building is made holy not simply by the worshipping community, but by the very Presence of God.
"Nothing so becomes a church as silence and good order. Noise belongs to theatres ... and market-places: but [in church] ... there should be stillness, and quiet and calm reflection, and a haven of much repose" (St John Chrysostom). We are not attending a performance. We are participating in liturgy, the very worship of God. In church, we are most visibly before God. Even our dress should acknowledge this. As St Cyprian once said, "The dress of the body should not discredit the good of the soul."
Perhaps we have lost sight of the basic fact that God is Lord and we are his humble servants. He made us. He is the Creator, not us. With all our advances in science, with our technological ability to begin human life and to end human life, to manipulate and control life, we may be tempted to push God aside and place ourselves at the centre of the universe.
This may explain something of our rather casual attitudes and behaviours when we come into his presence. While his power and authority may seem to have been diminished in the view of some, it is not so in reality. He has placed all his goodness at the service of our redemption.
God, the Lord of all creation, has stooped to rescue us from our sins. He has sent his only-begotten Son to be our Saviour. As Paul reminds us, "Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself ... coming in human likeness ... he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth ..." (Phil 2:6-9).
When we come to church, we come to the Eucharist where this mystery of Christ's dying and rising for us is made present. When we enter church, we are before Christ present to us in the Blessed Sacrament. Therefore, our reverence is not one of trembling or dread, cowering before a monarch whose power we fear. No! It is the hushed awe in the presence of a love too great for words. A love that inspires and lifts up. A love that draws us out of ourselves into the very life of God.
The more we realise what it means to come to church, the more easily will our dress, our actions, our speech and our silence publicly witness to our faith in God who gathers us together so that "from the rising of the sun to its setting, a pure sacrifice may be offered to [his] name" (Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer III, third edition).
Bishop Arthur Serratelli is the bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, and is chairman of the US Bishops' Committee on Liturgy. The above article has been reprinted with the permission of The Beacon , the newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson in which this article was first published.