Timothy Radcliffe OP is one of the foremost spiritual writers in the Dominican tradition in the English speaking world. His works include the award winning What is the point of Being a Christian, the Seven Last Words, I Call You Friends and Why Go to Church - The Drama of the Eucharist which was selected by the Archbishop of Canterbury as the Lent Book of 2009.

Fr. Timothy Radcliffe will be in Singapore from 12 to 23 November.

Nov 09, SPI Newsletter: The self-centred Christian, the Catholic know-it-all-snob, the private Christian or even the most staunch scripture-quoting Sunday mass congregation are unlikely to turn the pages of this stirring and in-your-face-title “Why Go to Church - The Drama of the Eucharist”  without learning and picking up something new.
It could be anything from seeing ourselves as part of a bigger scheme of God and Human coming together or it could be a better understanding of the rubrics of the Mass we attend itself.

With centuries of church-going being part of an inherited tradition, who would think that today we would need yet another book exhorting baptised Catholics to get out of bed with unbridled joy on a Sunday and rush to Mass? Numerous Catholic writers, church fathers, thinkers, reformers, saints, sinners and apologists have spilt much ink writing about the Catholic Mass and why we attend it. So why do we need another book to weigh down the spiritual shelves of bookstores and libraries?

Only because Radcliffe gets his point across without being theologically stuffy or sanctimonious. Which can be less threatening than a hostile mother terrifying the reluctant teen with visions of flames and pitchforks to get out of bed and to go and be part of a worshipping community.

Using the technique of a playwright, Radcliffe ingeniously breaks the material into a three act play with each act broken into scenes exploring the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity which he replaces with love. It is no mere coincidence that Radcliffe uses the familiar dramatic structure to centre his persuasive arguments on why we go to church. The Mass after all is the greatest drama enacted with we and God encountering each other in very powerful yet meaningful gestures that are best appreciated in the context of the theological virtues. The triptych rendering of the Mass not only makes it easier but perhaps even lends a dramatic build-up that no playwright could ever match. “The Eucharist is a drama in three acts, through which we share God’s life and begin even now to be touched by God’s happiness. Each act prepares for the next,” explains Radcliffe.

Oscar Wilde once wrote that the success of a play really depends on the audience and with the Mass it could not be further from the truth since the celebrant and the congregation exchange lines and enter into a mystery by first acknowledging their very presence and existence.

The book’s central theme of the Mass is an excellent meditative introduction to our very own humanity, which the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams points out in the foreword, “[The Mass]....allows us to be human in ways we shan’t find anywhere else.” The Mass then is where we find our meanings for whatever trials, hardships and even joys we experience. The transforming mystery of the Mass enables us to respond effectively with peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. We encounter this through the liturgical rites, the Eucharistic prayers and the public gestures we make during the Mass.

By the time Act One is completed Radcliffe has helped us to understand what faith is and invited us to embrace hope. For today’s contemporary young Catholics, who often say that their faith is a private affair or prefer a nostalgic show complete with smells and bells, they would be missing what the Church has always stressed, and what Radcliffe reminds us: a faith expressed communally. “It would make no sense to practise a Christian spirituality and have nothing to do with other Christians,” writes Radcliffe. “It would be like trying to play football alone. In the words of the old Latin saying, ‘Unus christianus, nullus christianus’, The single Christian is no Christian.’

Which again leads up to another point made by well-meaning but ignorant Christians whose oft heard lament is that the evangelicals have warmer and chummier congregations. Radcliffe effectively rebuts this by writing that parochial chumminess is not the reason why we go to church. “The community, however inadequate, is how in Christ I belong to the whole of the Christ’s body, the community of the living and the dead, of saints and sinners throughout space and time, indeed to the whole of humanity.”

If that is not a powerful enough reason to get us out of bed, then maybe the final act which is the act on love is persuasive enough to get us to encounter the Risen Christ. It is not merely about our feelings, it is about recognising God working in us and allowing the final dismissal rite of going to serve the Lord to keep the Mass alive outside the confines of our traditional worship spaces.

All of this makes sense when Radcliffe gives us a glimpse into Masses celebrated in corners of the world where war rages, communal dissent is strong, or where hope seems to fade. It is precisely in places like this and even in our own lives where we struggle to make sense of yesterday, today and tommorrow that the Mass is so relevant.

Even if all this seems to be familiar hallowed territory, it is still a worthwhile read to reflect further and develop more insight to a celebration that has survived, and will continue to survive and bring more meaning to generations yet to come. If that is still unconvincing, then just read it for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams’ introduction which is more than a worthwhile reason to pick the book up.

Nov 09, SPI Newsletter

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